The news broke late at night in the U.S., and when Europe awoke few hours later the newswires buzzed with the story: the U.S. court that had been adjudicating on the legal dispute between SolarWorld subsidiary Deutsche Solar and Hemlock Seminconductor ruled in favor of the latter a decision that could see the German-U.S. solar company hit for sizable damages.
Hemlock had been pursuing at least $500 million in damages after it alleged that Deutsche Solar had not honored multi-year, take-or-pay polysilicon deals. The relationship between the two firms went south in 2013 after SolarWorld tried to wriggle out of polysilicon contracts in order to take advantage of falling prices on offer elsewhere.
As part of the negotiations, Hemlock asked SolarWorld to petition the U.S. Department of Commerce to help broker a resolution to the solar trade dispute led initially by SolarWorld between the U.S. and China. Court papers appear to show that SolarWorld did not carry through with its promises to do so.
Hemlocks position was made clear within the court document, as it had contained within it a letter sent to SolarWorld in 2012 by Joseph Rinaldi, Vice President of Hemlocks parent company Dow Coring Corp., which stipulated how SolarWorld must respond if negotiations over adjusted contracts were to continue.
It said that SolarWorld must send a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce requesting the pursuing of good faith negotiations with respect to a potential settlement of the antidumping and countervailing duty investigations involving solar cells and modules from the Peoples Republic of China. Adding that Any such settlement or amendments [between Deutsche Solar and Hemlock] shall be contingent on a settlement of the antidumping and countervailing duty investigations references in the letter above on terms acceptable to Hemlock Semiconductor."
The court document then continued that SolarWorld President Gordon Brinser told Hemlock that the letter had been sent, but with a few small word changes. Hemlock, however, considered these word changes to be "quite significant and disappointing," leading to an escalation in the dispute.
"The most interesting aspect is that Hemlock is apparently using the case as leverage to force SolarWorld to withdraw its petitions for punitive duties on Chinese solar cells and modules in order to regain access to the Chinese polysilicon market in turn," leading polysilicon analyst Johannes Bernreuter told pv magazine. "As SolarWorld is a staunch defender of the duties, the company is in a delicate situation."
EU opens up MIP investigation
There was further China-trade-related drama earlier in the week when it emerged that the European Commission had opened an investigation into three Chinese solar companies suspected of breaching the Minimum Import Price (MIP) ruling in the EU.
The three accused companies are Ningbo Osda Solar, Ningbo Qixin Solar, and Shandong Linuo Photovoltaic Hi-Tech, who will be withdrawn from the MIP agreement should the EUs suspicions be substantiated.
The MIP and import volume restrictions were agreed upon by the EU and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Machinery and Electronic Products (CCCME) in December 2013, as an anti-dumping measure, and were accepted by a large majority of Chinese PV manufacturers. Those who declined the agreement would have large duties placed upon their exports to the EU. The current MIP is set at EUR 56 cents per watt for crystalline modules.
In the document, Ningbo Osda Solar, Ningbo Qixin Solar, and Shandong Linuo Photovoltaic Hi-Tech, have been accused of violating the terms of the MIP undertaking. The European Commission listed the suspicious sales and invoices, which all took place last year, within the document.
The investigation is set to determine, based on the listed invoices, whether the three companies sold modules under the MIP, which would result in them being excluded from the MIP, as well as duties of around 50% being added to the listed transactions. All parties involved in the transactions have been invited to get in touch with the commission before the final decision is made in Brussels.
On a war footing
Back in the U.S., amid the news bombs dropping all around them, the solar industrys great and good got on with the matter at hand: Intersolar North America. Day one was particularly interesting, setting an embattled tone that persisted throughout the shows duration. Speaker after speaker addressed not only the rapid growth of the solar industry, but the forces that are pushing against that growth, including a public advocate who is suing to stop fossil fuel projects, and the CEO of perhaps the most combative distributed solar company in the industry.
"We are inherent disruptor of the status quo, and that has caused some to push against us," noted California Solar Energy Industries Association (CalSEIA) Executive Director Bernadette del Chiaro.
Del Chiaro is a veteran of these conflicts, which are neither abstract nor distant. And while this last years regulatory battle over net metering was largely a victory for the solar industry in California, the same cannot be said of other states, most notably Nevada, where net metering was dismantled.
Shaken up Down Under
At the other end of the world, Antipodean neighbors Australia and New Zealand had contrasting solar fortunes this week. While Australia looks set to burst through the 5 GW mark for rooftop solar this month following a remarkable residential embrace of PV, New Zealands Electricity Authority (EA) took the retrograde step of ruling in favor of a controversial solar tax.
But first, Australia, where the market is still growing at around 700 MW-800 MW a year, and is expected to accelerate as more houses consider battery storage, particularly with a new surge in electricity bills caused by the surging price of gas and gas-fired generation.
The state with the most solar capacity remains Queensland, which is now at 1.534 GW, followed by NSW (1.07 GW) and Victoria (935 MW). Rooftop solar is now thought to account for around 3% of total consumption in Australia.
A recent report suggested that more than 1.5 million Australian households and businesses have invested more than $8 billion in rooftop solar (net of subsidies), and are saving around $1 billion a year on their electricity bills.
"5 GW of rooftop solar demonstrate how much the people of Australia love solar, and whats more they prefer generating their own power than buying it from a coal fired power station, said Warwick Johnston, the director of Sunwiz.
In New Zealand, however, Hawkes Bay lines company Unison has caused uproar among environmental groups for charging residential and commercial solar customers an additional fee to connect to the grid. This solar charge has been deemed by the EA as unlawful; a decision that has triggered a public backlash against the authority, resulting in a 30,000-strong petition calling on the EA to protect solar customers.
Greenpeace NZ has called the EA "unfit for purpose" following the ruling, and worries that other utilities and power companies in New Zealand will now feel they have a mandate to introduce similar charges.
"This is a blatant move by the EA to wash its hands of protecting and promoting renewable energy like solar, so that it can continue to massage New Zealands electricity monopoly," said Greenpeace NZ campaigner Simon Boxer.
Indian solar soars
And finally to India, which remains firmly on course to be the worlds fourth-largest solar market in 2016. As the sector expands, new and innovative solar solutions are being added to the mix, with the countrys Airports Authority (AAI) eager to bring the power of PV to its major airports.
The plan is to propel airport solar to 146 MW nationwide, having already installed or begun work on around 30 MW of airport-located solar. According to the ministry, a further 16 airports have been identified for the next phase of the project, which will see approximately 116 MW of additional solar PV capacity added.
The AAI manages 125 airports across India, of which 11 handle international flights and 81 are for domestic routes. The government has been exploring ways to give greater purpose to many of the countrys underutilized airports, and believes that cheaper solar energy could play a role in delivering this, allied to cheaper internal air travel as Indias middle class grows.