SAN FRANCISCO – Not so long ago, China’s solar industry was at the top of the global renewable energy heap, knocking out millions of solar panels while steadily driving down their price - to the delight of U.S. consumers. For U.S. competitors, of course, it was a different story: squeezed profit margins were driving many U.S. companies out of business or to offshore manufacturing locations like China.
We toured at a big North American solar exhibition here recently and were immediately struck by the sheer number of well-heeled Chinese solar manufacturers exhibiting at the event. But lately there are clear signs that even Chinese solar manufacturers are suffering as their own profit margins have been whittled down to the thickness of a polysilicon wafer.
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Reports out of China indicate that key segments of China’s renewable energy infrastructure like photovoltaic technology are nearing collapse. In August, the head of a Chinese solar company leapt to his death when he realized his company couldn’t pay off a government loan. Other Chinese solar panel manufacturers have recently cut production.
All this as oil futures continue to rise and gasoline prices remain above $5 a gallon in key markets like California.
With trade tensions rising between the U.S. and China, some Chinese vendors at the Inter Solar North American exhibition here also evinced a growing awareness of how the global trade system operates when rival economies are hurting. One Chinese vendor prominently display at its booth a key passage from a U.S. International Trade Administration ruling that the company did not dump solar panels on the U.S. market.
Growing trade tensions between China and the U.S. along with the exodus of solar manufacturing to China have placed solar politics at the forefront in a presidential election year. One of candidate Mitt Romney’s so-called presidential debate “zingers” accuses the Obama administration of surpassing the old GOP saw about “picking between winners and losers” with picking only losers -- a not-so-subtle reference to last year’s Solyndra debacle.
Factors like climate change, the drive for energy independence, access to capital, technological advances and plain-old politics are constantly reshaping renewable energy markets. We offer a snapshot of that market and where it might be headed.
SolFocus' concentrator photovoltaic panels use optics technology to capture sunlight and concentrate it hundreds of times on a solar cell.