Intersolar: PV optimism in the face of adversity

With the Intersolar Europe tradeshow opening its doors today and many expecting an EU-Sino trade dispute to be launched by SolarWorld, the Canadian Solar and JA Solar CEOs, Shawn Qu and Peng Fang respectively, were surprisingly upbeat about photovoltaic industry prospects. They were joined on the stage by the Kyocera Fineceramics GmbH managing director, Rafael Schröer and IBC Solar CEO, Udo Möhrstedt.

Not all participants at the CEO panel session were equally bullish, however. Navigant Consulting analyst, Paula Mints told pv magazine she was unimpressed by the CEO’s display of optimism and that she was not entirely convinced.

EU trade dispute

While there were issues over which the four panel participants did not agree, they were in concert over their belief that a EU-based photovoltaic trade dispute would not be in the interests of the industry. Expectation is high that SolarWorld will launch a EU-Sino trade claim today, June 13, as the Intersolar Europe tradeshow opens.

While both Chinese-based manufacturers JA Solar and Canadian Solar CEOs were circumspect while talking about the potential for a trade case, project developer Möhrstedt did not mince his words. "It would be very stupid to implement a tax on Chinese modules," he said. "It would be a great mistake, because the Chinese government reaction would be to put higher duties on imported cars or [photovoltaic] machinery."

Canadian Solar CEO Qu went to lengths to explain how the process by which the U.S Department of Commerce (DOC) reached its preliminary tariff conclusions were unfair. The DOC had compared operating costs of Chinese manufacturers with those from Taiwan, argued Qu, while that is not an equal comparison and the mainland operators enjoy far greater economies of scale. Qu also joked about SolarWorld CEO, Frank Asbeck being formerly, "my old buddy" then quickly adding, "although I don’t know if I can say that anymore."

JA Solar’s Fang added that China will be a huge market for photovoltaics in the near future. Fang pointed out that Chinese Government officials had reported 60 percent of the country’s rail freight as being occupied with carrying coal for energy production. He also indicated that while the photovoltaic market is only emerging in the country, nine to ten gigawatts (GW) of newly installed capacity can be expected in 2013 and many more in the coming years.

Kyocera’s Schröer agreed that tariffs are counterproductive for the photovoltaic industry, pointing out that for Germany, in particular – as an exporting country – it makes little sense. Pointing to the suppliers who kitted out Chinese manufacturing capacity expansions, Schröer said Germany’s equipment suppliers stand most to lose over any trade dispute. "Most of the machines comes from Germany or Switzerland," he said, "[any trade dispute] will hit that industry sooner or later."

Bulls rather than bears

In looking to predictions for newly installed capacity in 2012, all the panelists were optimistic. From a German perspective, Möhrstedt said he believed recent EPIA predictions were too pessimistic. "All the figures are wrong," he exclaimed. For Germany in 2012, he predicted 6.5 GW of new capacity, with a weak first quarter, but a peak before September, falling away in the fourth quarter. For the whole of Europe, he predicted capacity of between 10 and 11 GW for the year.

Fang, from JA Solar, again emphasized the importance of China, saying that the government has been increasing its annual newly-installed capacity goals. "If you look at forecasts in the last five years, the industry always says it’s going under, and then something happens." He cited the the 11th five-year plan where 1.8 GW was predicted for photovoltaics, which was then revised up to 20 GW by 2020. Fang added that 50 GW is more realistic, with some even talking of 100 GW!

Kyocera’s Schröer, perhaps embodying the conservative nature of his company (which he sought to emphasize during the discussion), said that Japan is likely to see around three GW installed in 2012, with the same figure being reached in 2013. He also made the important point that a paradigm shift was currently underway in the user market for photovoltaics, in that consumers were no longer looking at how much they will make from an installation, but rather how much they can save on utility bills – as grid parity is reached in certain markets.