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Unfortunately the solar industry is not a level playing field at present.  The Chinese government has provided some enormous loans to their top PV manufacturers (e.g. http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKHKH00202420100414).  These manufacturers are using the money for incredibly rapid expansion so that they are fast outgrowing all of their European competitors.  Being bigger means they have greater efficiency, which means the large Chinese players now have even lower costs than their foreign competitors.  There are obviously cries from US and German manufacturers about violations of international trade laws etc and indeed the situation is particularly unfair seeing as it was the German FiT that created the Chinese manufacturers in the first place, but there is little chance of any legal recourse in the near term.  The situation has led German policy makers to think about protectionist policies for solar though (‘buy German’) and provided fuel for the anti-solar lobby.

All that aside, the top-tier Chinese solar manufacturers are now producing high quality modules with lower costs than anyone else.  They have had a lot of experience with due diligence from European banks and are now pro-active in respect to quality control and bankability.  They are also beginning to invest heavily in R&D which will close the already small technology gap with Japanese and European competition.  Chinese solar manufacturers are integrating vertically in the value chain in a big way.  This means that for example cell manufacturers are starting to make wafers, silicon and modules etc. This gives them greater ability to control quality and improves margin retention.  They are also expanding downstream and bulking up sales teams in Europe with Europeans. This reduces the ‘fear factor’ of working with Chinese companies and taking revenue away from European wholesalers.  The strength of the big Chinese players is evidently putting a strain on its competition. If one had to choose between German or Chinese manufacturers as the most likely to be around in 25 years it would almost certainly be the Chinese.

It should be noted that there a number of Chinese manufacturers that do not have such high standards and should be avoided.  Many people in the solar industry are not convinced that the UK’s Microgeneration Certification Scheme is effective at weeding out these poor manufactures judging from the companies which have gotten through.  There are also lots of counterfeit modules  on the market now (for example fake Trina Solar and ET Solar modules are widespread) so its important to find installers with good checking procedures.

So does the rise of the big Chinese solar manufacturers damage the UK and make the Feed-in tariffs pointless, seeing as it will support the continued growth of unbeatable foreign competition?  I would argue that the only way to create growth in our manufacturing industry is to develop a domestic end-user market.  For a long time the UK has precious little in terms of PV manufacturing capability, which means that the strength of Chinese companies has little impact on us.  If we were not buying from China, we would be buying from elsewhere.   As the UK market grows, more people become engaged in the industry and start to look at product innovation.  Already there are a number of UK companies developing solar products specific to the UK market as a direct result of the introduction of the Feed-in tariff.

Furthermore, module manufacturing makes up only a small portion of the solar value chain.  Installing roof-top PV is highly labour intensive, and the feed-in tariffs will create a huge number of jobs in the badly suffering building services industry.  The fact that there are good quality, cheap Chinese panels available allows solar PV to be more competitive as a renewable energy source.  Costs are expected to fall rapidly over the coming years (as they have already) meaning that in around 5-6 years time the cost of solar electricity will be at par with retail electricity prices, which means the FiTs won’t be needed anymore.

Another point is that the big Chinese PV manufacturers will start doing the last manufacturing step, module integration, close to their markets.  This is because you can air freight solar cells, but you have to ship finished solar panels because of the glass (regular glass factories normally only serve a radius of 100km).  By doing module integration close to their key markets, manufacturers won’t have working capital tied up for 4 weeks and will reduce the risk of damage in transport.  Sharp already do this with a module integration plant in Wrexham, and we may well start seeing the Chinese companies open manufacturing plants in Europe, even in the UK, over the next couple of years which would provide an interesting boost to UK industry.

Eventually the playing field will level out again – China will get more expensive and there will be space for newcomers with new technologies, but for now the Chinese players clearly have the upper hand.

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