As Chinese solar manufacturers climbed to market dominance over the past decade, backed by endless subsidies from Beijing, many of their European counterparts went bankrupt.
Many, but not all: one Swiss company has come back fighting. Meyer Burger, which started out in 1953 as a watch machine manufacturer, came to be one of the world’s most reputable solar equipment suppliers. But in 2020, it made the decision to acquire cell and module production facilities to produce its own solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.
“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,” Gunter Erfurt, CEO of Meyer Burger, tells fDi.
As it celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, the mechanical engineering company is toasting its successful pivot into solar cell and module production, as it ramps up capacity. Its modules, which use heterojunction technology, boast a 20% greater energy yield than average solar PV panels.
The company raised a total funding of SFr830m ($899m), including in equity, debt and convertible bonds, between 2020 and 2022. Most of this has been or will be spent on expansion. It aims to increase cell and module production capacity from one gigawatt (GW) in 2022 to 3GW each by 2024.
But front and centre of this expansion is a bid for strategic autonomy and something akin to retribution. “Europe lost the leadership race to China because Europe made China strong,” he says, adding that the fall in costs among Chinese solar manufacturers is down to European technology as much as it is the scaling-up authored by the Chinese government.
“We taught [Chinese manufacturers] how to make solar cells, modules and wafers ... We basically gave away our core intellectual property (IP) assets,” he says.
The new business model, where more emphasis has been placed on protecting the patents of their products, brings about two advantages: “One, we can safeguard and ringfence our IP against misuse. Two, we benefit from and participate in the revenue pool growth in the solar market,” he says.
Amid the ongoing subsidies fight between the US and the EU, and while it is conscious of its European roots, Meyer Burger is first and foremost committed to expanding.
“We believe in the market, but if the industrial policy scheme under which we are operating is better elsewhere, then we will go elsewhere,” he says.
Made in Europe
Constantin Hesse, an analyst at Jefferies, says that “it couldn’t be a better time for Meyer Burger”, as installers are more receptive to European homegrown technology.
“While the company has been derisking quite substantially, the one risk that remains is competition, especially from China,” he explains.
While the company has been derisking quite substantially, the one risk that remains is competition, especially from China.
The current legacy dominant cell technology is the ‘passivated emitter and rear contact’ cell, while Meyer Burger is offering a more efficient alternative with heterojunction technology. But Chinese companies, such as Jinko, are also moving to adopt new technologies with higher efficiency, such as Topcon solar panel technology.
“Though there is increased demand for ‘Made in Europe’, which is helping Meyer Burger, let’s not be naive: it’s always about the right price as well,” Mr Hesse explains. “As long as the Chinese continue to push down prices, Meyer Burger will still come under a certain amount of pressure.”
The issue of recycling is also becoming increasingly important, especially with solar panels. By 2030, this technology is expected to generate up to eight million tonnes of waste, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, and up to 78 million tonnes by 2050.
At the company’s plant in Freiberg, Germany, it has run a pilot recycling programme with neighbouring company LuxChemtech, while all its facilities are powered by clean electricity.
“We are doing the utmost to make sure that we are sourcing electricity from clean sources, including green power purchase agreements,” he says. “Ideally, in the near future, we want to be carbon neutral and not only produce a clean product, but conduct a clean business.”
This article has been edited for clarity and brevity. It first appeared in the February/March 2023 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.