At the height of the pandemic in 2020, the Swiss mechanical engineering firm and renowned solar equipment supplier Meyer Burger decided to move into the production of solar cells and modules, in a bid to compete with Chinese solar dominance.
Gunter Erfurt, CEO of Meyer Burger, tells fDi how the company has embarked upon this journey and why the EU is not a necessary part of its corporate renaissance.
Q: What investments have Meyer Burger made over these past few years?
A: In 2021, we opened a solar cell factory in Thalheim, Germany, followed by a module factory in Freiberg, also in Germany. We’re currently building a module facility in Goodyear, in the US state of Arizona, which is supplied by German cells, but as the end-product will be made in the US, it meets the requirements for the US government’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
This will be a pretty important asset for us. We believe that that’s going to take us to three gigawatts (GW) of cell and module production by 2024, and we will then be, by far, the largest non-Asian solar photovoltaic cell and module maker in the field of crystalline silicon.
Q: But for a company trying to bring everything back to Europe, does spreading operations to the US pose the very supply chain risks that the reshoring model is trying to redress?
A: No. We are not 100% European in terms of components, and we are still deciding where to put the emphasis in our supply chains. We are in talks with US companies who might be helpful in regrowing the supply chain for components, such as frames and junction boxes.
Q: So, if Meyer Burger has its renaissance, but the EU does not match the favourable tax credits offered under the IRA, you’ll head off to the US?
A: We haven’t made any firm decision yet, except for the project we are already building in Arizona. We’re not going to close our existing European factories, but the lack of response from the EU is limiting our ability to consider Europe for the next expansion phases.
That’s what we're saying — we believe in the market, but if the industrial policy scheme under which we are operating is better elsewhere, then we will go elsewhere.
We believe in the market, but if the industrial policy scheme under which we are operating is better elsewhere, then we will go elsewhere.
Q: How would you define the journey Meyer Burger has been on over the past few years?
A: The company is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. Until three years ago, we were a major supplier of production and product technology for solar cells. We decided to stop this old business model, because we had become victims of our own technological success. Our business model relied on a piece of equipment you only sell once, and then your customer can produce cells for years and generate value.
The revenue pool in the business of solar equipment was shrinking, despite the fact that the market was going through the roof. So we decided to start producing solar cells and modules ourselves. People sometimes perceive us as the ‘last man standing’ in Europe but this is untrue: we have started anew. We have opened a new chapter in an industry that is currently changing a lot.
Q: What about your own supply chain? Do you still use Chinese polysilicon or Chinese-produced wafers?
A: As our customers are pretty sensitive to the Xinjiang issue, the polysilicon is entirely sourced from non-Chinese companies. The vast majority comes from German multinational chemicals company Wacker. On wafers, we get around a fifth of our wafers from Norway-based companies NorSun and Norwegian Crystals, and the rest from China. But the vast majority of the polysilicon — and that’s the interesting part for many of our customers — is made in Germany.
This interview took place before the EU presented its Green Deal Industrial Plan. This article has been edited for clarity and brevity.
A profile on Meyer Burger, based on this interview, appeared in the February/March 2023 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.