Meyer Burger eyes European solar panel manufacturing after boardroom battle

Business news |
By Nick Flaherty

The move at Meyer Burger in Switzerland comes after the resolution of a boardroom battle with activist investors that saw the chief executive and chairman step down. The company has been selling off several subsidiaries and is now looking at a more vertically integrated model. This would make solar panels based on its proprietary heterojunction manufacturing technology called SmartWire.

The company is also a major investor in UK startup Oxford PV, supplying its equipment to the Oxford production line for tandem perovskite solar cells being set up in Germany. This technology is a key part of the new direction.

“Based on the successful production ramp-up of REC’s ALPHA solar module, we have now delivered the proof of concept of our leading technology,” said Dr. Remo Lütolf, the outgoing Chairman of the Board of Directors. “This technology is setting a new benchmark with respect to efficiency and production costs.  Against this backdrop, we decided to undertake a strategic realignment of Meyer Burger. In other words, we are focusing on the marketing and development of our own heterojunction/ SmartWire technology as well as the highly promising tandem cell technology – a combination of heterojunction and perovskite.

The board is now looking at funding to build the plant, two years after it sold off its solar panel system business.

“This modified business strategy with increased vertical integration will allow us to profit more from value creation associated with our heterojunction/ SmartWire technology. The focus is on setting up our own cell and module production in Europe. We are aiming to thereby exploit the full potential of our heterojunction/SmartWire technology while maintaining our technological lead and protecting our intellectual property against abuse.”

The veiled criticism of China is part of the reason for the change. Current solar cells using PERC technology has become commoditised. “Its market share is now 65% and is continuing to grow. At the end of 2019, prices for PERC modules reached a new low, almost 20% lower than 12 months earlier,” he said.

This hit the 2019 company results hard. “There is no way to gloss over the fact that our 2019 annual result is disappointing,” he said. “In the 2019 reporting year, Meyer Burger recorded incoming orders of CHF 188.3 million ($188m), representing a decline of about 24% on a comparable basis, i.e. adjusted for divestments and currency effects. This decline reflects the difficult market environment due to stronger Chinese competition as well as the objectives of the Chinese government related to its “Made in China 2025” strategic plan.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the risks of relying on Chinese manufacturing, he says. “The current crisis is highlighting the risks associated with unilateral dependence on China as a production location. Currently, about 80% of global production capacity for solar cells and solar modules is in China. I am assuming we will see increased expansion of cell and module production capacity in Europe and North America in the future,” he said. 

The strategic realignment is also associated with changes in leadership.  As part of a deal with investors, the former CEO Hans Brändle resigned in March, with chief operating officer and chief technology officer Gunter Erfurt taking over with a leading role in overseeing the set-up of the own cell and module production facilities.

Lütolf stepped down as chairman at an ordinary general meeting held yesterday, which also saw Mark Kerekes from Sentis Capital PPC and Urs Fähndrich from Elysium Capital AG join the Board of Directors as shareholder representatives “in the interest of investor involvement.”

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