China-EU solar imports, to cap or not to cap?

As always with bureaucratic documents, the devil is in the detail and the publication on Saturday of acceptance of the solar trade deal agreed between the EU and Chinese manufacturers left questions unanswered.

Details of the acceptance by EU member states of an undertaking by Chinese solar wafer, cell and module manufacturers to fix minimum import prices for their products were published in volume 56 of the EU’s Official Journal at the weekend.

The list of Chinese manufacturers signing up to the deal negotiated by EC trade commissioner Karel de Gucht and Chinese Ministry of Commerce (Mofcom) counterpart Gao Hucheng was comprehensive and includes all the big names such as Yingli, Suntech, GCL Poly, JA Solar, Canadian Solar, China Sunergy, Hanwha SolarOne, Hareon, Jinko Solar and Renesola.

As expected, there was no indication of the minimum import prices set for wafers, cells or modules – media reports have speculated only the module price, at €0.56/W (US$0.74/W) – but there was an indication the EC had to rely on price reports from news agencies Bloomberg and pvXchange to negotiate floor prices.

Typically such prices are linked to the cost of raw materials – in this case polysilicon – but the publication of the Commission’s decision stated this had proved impossible in the solar case, itself an interesting development against the backdrop of the Chinese government’s investigation into the alleged dumping of EU-made poly into China.

When did ‘current’ start?

The greatest area of doubt concerns the volume cap which will be imposed upon Chinese solar exporters to the EU. Initial media reports speculated this would be set at a fixed 7 GW cap, for modules at least, but the EC has since hinted it would be a percentage of the China-EU market and has also indicated there will be separate annual caps for wafers, cells and modules. Saturday’s publication, however, stated only that Chinese manufacturers have offered to ensure levels are consistent with ‘current’ market performance and the question of what ‘current’ means is hugely significant.

If the cap is linked to the ‘current’ market share of Chinese exports in the 2012 boom year, that could effectively mean no cap at all as European demand for solar continues to shrink.

Saturday’s decision made no direct reference to the consequences of Chinese manufacturers trying to get around the deal by, for example, assembling products outside China before shipping them to the EU but did state: "The commission considers the risk of circumvention limited and outweighed by considerations linked to the need to ensure security of supplies in the Union market."

The EC decision also refers to the right retained by the political bloc to withdraw its acceptance of the undertaking made by Chinese manufacturers, in which instance, anti dumping duties would be reinstated.

The new trade arrangements are due to come into force tomorrow.