The bankruptcies of three American solar power companies in the last month, including Solyndra of California on Wednesday, have left China’s industry with a dominant sales position — almost three-fifths of the world’s production capacity — and rapidly declining costs.
Some American, Japanese and European solar companies still have a technological edge over Chinese rivals, but seldom a cost advantage, according to industry analysts.
Loans at very low rates from state-owned banks in Beijing, cheap or free land from local and provincial governments across China, huge economies of scale and other cost advantages have transformed China from a minor player in the solar power industry just a few years ago into the main producer of an increasingly competitive source of electricity.
Analysts say that two American companies remain strongly placed. One is First Solar, the largest American manufacturer, which uses a different technology but has its biggest factory in Malaysia. The other, SunPower, is much smaller but is an industry leader in the efficiency with which its panels convert sunlight into electricity, so that they sell at a premium to Chinese panels.
China’s three biggest solar power companies — Suntech Power, Yingli Green Energy and Trina Solar — have all in the last two weeks announced second-quarter sales increases of 33 to 63 percent from a year earlier.
Yingli and Trina were also profitable in the quarter. Suntech posted a loss, mostly because it broke a longstanding agreement to buy solar wafers — critical components in the manufacturing process — from a Singapore affiliate of MEMC Electronic Materials of Missouri. Suntech aims to make more wafers itself.
He attributed the Chinese industry’s low costs not to inexpensive labor in China — high-technology solar panel manufacturing is not labor-intensive — but rather to free or subsidized land from local governments, extensive tax breaks and other state assistance.
Costs for electricity generated by utility-scale solar installations now approach costs for natural gas in some markets, like California’s, when subsidies of as much as 30 percent of the price are included. However, costs remain well above the cost of electricity from coal.
The United States and the European Union have tried to build demand for solar power by subsidizing the buyers of solar panels. But increasingly those subsidies are being used to buy solar panels from China.
The Chinese government has pursued a different policy course. Instead of subsidizing the purchase and use of solar power, China has focused on building the competitiveness of the country’s manufacturers. As a result, China exports 95 percent of the solar panels it produces. The United Steelworkers union filed a legal complaint a year ago with the United States government, asking the Obama administration to investigate China’s clean energy subsidies and other policies and to bring cases against them at the World Trade Organization. The organization’s rules strictly prohibit export subsidies, to prevent countries from buying market share in foreign markets for their producers.
An important point: Chinese advantage is no longer the labor but local policies. When it comes to new tech and growth, Chinese local governments have unusually consensus