SPI: Thunderclouds over Dallas

21. October 2011 | Markets & Trends, Global PV markets, Top News, Trade cases | By:  Hans-Christoph Neidlein / Alan Faulcon

With mixed results, Solar Power International (SPI) came to a close yesterday in Dallas. Although with a total of 1,200 exhibitors a new record was reached, only 21,000 visitors attended, a decline on the previous year.

The SPI logo.

The SPI trade-show and conference in Dallas has taken place amidst poor market conditions and much controversy. Image: SPI.

Uncertain market prospects and difficult financing terms in the U.S. put an additional damper on the overall mood. Under the leadership of SolarWorld a stir was caused by a petition to the government in Washington from U.S. manufacturers requesting that Chinese trade practices be investigated.

"More than a few will go down the drain," is how Markus W. Hoehner, CEO of EUPD Research set the stage for participants at a breakfast briefing of the Joint Forces for Solar prior to the start of the trade exhibition. Although the prospects look good for photovoltaics over the medium-term, in the short-term the industry is struggling and not only in the U.S. Serious overcapacities and sluggish demand plague the market – particularly in the leading market of Germany.

In addition, difficult financing in the U.S. makes the business even more problematic. After the failure of Solyndra and other companies, the Federal Government and Congress have slowed down federal financing programs and "most U.S. banks are still skeptical of photovoltaics," pointed out Roger Efird, head of Suntech U.S. and Chairman of the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), to pv magazine.

This is particularly critical also because photovoltaic system prices in the U.S. are clearly higher than in the leading market of Germany. While the price per kilowatt of installed output for solar parks in Germany has declined to as much as 1,500 euros (USD$2,065), in the U.S. this figure, according to EUPD Research, is on average $3,500. And the difference in prices for smaller installations in the residential sector is even greater. In Germany prices fell to even 1,900 euros ($2,615) per kilowatt of installed output, while in the U.S. they are $6,340 per kilowatt on the average, according to EUPD.

Nevertheless, more than two gigawatts (GW) of newly installed output is expected for the USA for this year, according to SEIA head Rhone Resch, particularly when it comes to large-scale installations – almost twice as much as in the previous year.

Correspondingly, visitors to SPI also showed comparatively strong interest in the downstream segment. Companies like the tracker manufacturer Sonnen Systems even reported on outstanding business. However, the mood was not as cheerful among mechanical engineering companies, where a gaping void could sometimes be observed in front of their stands at the Convention Center in Dallas. "It went very poorly," intimated, for example, Karl Schanz, General Manager Solar at Asys, to pv magazine. A spokeswoman from Meyer Burger expressed a similar opinion.

All of this took place in the shadow cast by the petition submitted to the government in Washington by SolarWorld America together with six U.S. manufacturers during the trade exhibition. The U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission are being asked to examine allegedly unfair trading on the part of China and to impose sanctions in order to protect U.S. manufacturers.

What is involved are the alleged dumping prices of Chinese manufacturers of crystalline cells and modules as well as alleged unfair subsidies that they receive from their government. The petition caused quite a sensation at the trade exhibition. At a press conference yesterday SEIA demanded an open investigation of the allegations. "It is critical that governments and private parties operate within the framework of internationally negotiated trade rules," said SEIA head Resch. At the same time he made it clear that SEIA – which also has several large Chinese manufacturers such as Suntech with headquarters in the U.S. among its members – will take a neutral stance in this case.

Ironically enough apart from SolarWorld, it is still not clear who the other six members of the new Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing are, how many crystalline cells and modules they produce, and whether they are at all members of SEIA. The petition above all suits the demands of several Republican congressional representatives and presidential candidates who recently requested that President Obama should impose a heavy tariff on panels coming from China.

On the other hand, Adam Browning from the non-government organization Vote Solar explained shortly after publication of the petition: "Countries around the world offer incentives in order to attract and build manufacturing sectors. Germany has long offered 50 percent unsecured loans. Malaysia will give you a 10-year tax holiday, if you site a manufacturing plant there. In fact, this is what we often ask the U.S. government to do."


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