Chinese PV market closed to European inverter suppliers

There is little doubt that the global PV market has taken a major shift towards Asia, with annual installed capacity in Japan and China set to total around 16 GW of the anticipated global figure of 45 GW, as forecast by IHS for 2014. However, as the importance of established PV markets of Italy and Germany continue to decline, European suppliers may find it difficult to compensate for this fading demand by looking east.

Swiss inverter supplier Sputnik Engineering AG has told pv magazine that it had a “bad experience” after attempting to build a presence in China, beginning in 2011. Sputnik is behind the brand SolarMax, which has enjoyed considerable success in Europe and the U.S. recently however not in the booming Asian markets.

“We did it and we were too late,” said SolarMax CEO Christoph von Bergen. “But in the meantime, I don’t know any western inverter company that is successful in China. I know a lot of companies that are producing a lot of inverters in China, but they are not selling them in China, [they are selling them] here in Europe, Australia or the U.S.”

Von Bergen made his comments to pv magazine at the recent Intersolar trade show in Munich. He said that the company is most successful in its supply of Europe, including its home market of Switzerland, where von Bergen said the company enjoys “wonderful market share.” By contrast China proved a tough nut to crack.

“China is really very difficult. You have to have a huge and good network in China to start business there,” said von Bergen.

SolarMax has made the strategic decision not to supply to the currently booming Japanese market. This is despite the Japanese PV market generally being considered a “high quality” market, where premiums are paid for European made PV system components.

“Japanese companies also market themselves as being high quality,” countered von Bergen. “For us it’s crucial to say what our focus is and where do we want to spend our resources.” The SolarMax CEO elaborated that technical and regulatory requirements placed an additional barrier to entry in Japan.

“You have fulfill very strong requirements in Japan, even stronger than in the U.S. We want to focus and say, one important pillar is Europe and the other is the U.S., and for sure we take Australia and Chile with us,” said von Bergen.

The strategy applied by SolarMax, of focusing outside of the Asian markets, is only one approach to the challenge. Established inverter market leader SMA has taken a different route, in that it acquired a majority stake in Chinese inverter supplier Jiangsu Zeversolar, in early 2013.

The August edition of pv magazine will include a feature on the changing shape of the global inverter market and supply chains.