Sino-EU solar panel deal to remake industry in China

Top mainland producers expected to continue to export to Europe while lesser rivals are forecast to focus on the domestic market

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 3:35am


Mainland solar panel makers, whose total output capacity last year exceeded global demand, are facing a shake-out after last month's Sino-European deal to restrict mainland exports to the euro zone.

Analysts say producers with the strongest brand recognition and financial muscle will survive, sharing much-reduced tariff-free access to the European Union - the world's largest market for solar panels until last year.

The sale of Chinese solar panels in Europe will be subject to a minimum price, which will effectively rule out price competition. Weaker producers will be forced to find other markets, including the domestic market, which is growing rapidly on the back of state subsidies.

Beijing and Brussels struck an agreement on July 27 to avert a trade war, after Brussels threatened to slap an average tariff of 47 per cent on mainland-made solar panels and components known as wafers and cells.

The European Commission has yet to make public the minimum price, but wire service Bloomberg quoted an unnamed EU trade official as saying that some seven gigawatts (GW) of panels would be allowed to be sold to the EU at not less than 70 US cents per watt, similar to current prices. Further exports will be subject to an import tariff averaging 47 per cent. EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said on July 30 the deal would expire at the end of 2015.

Branding, quality, and reliability would be the main factors determining market share in the shrunken EU market, as price competition was eliminated, said analysts.

"Why buy a no-name brand or the product of a company in bankruptcy when you can buy from a tier-one manufacturer at the same price?" wrote Michael Parker, senior analyst at American brokerage Sanford C Bernstein.

"The 7GW of Chinese supply to Europe should be captured by the better-known, larger, solvent Chinese manufacturers."

He expected Hebei province-based Yingli Green Energy and Jiangsu province-based Trina Solar, which have spent on building their brands overseas, to be among the beneficiaries.

Jiangsu-based Suntech Power - which has filed for bankruptcy protection - and Jiangxi province-based LDK Solar - which was forced to restructure its debt - were expected to be the losers.

With 23 GW of output and 36 GW of capacity in the mainland last year, and with worldwide demand just 31 GW, the global solar panel industry has been loss-making since 2011.

Cuts in government subsidies for panel installation in the EU and falls in panel prices because of the oversupply that followed the expansion of mainland plants added to the industry's woes.

American industry consultancy IHS projected EU panel installations to fall by a third to 11.6 GW this year, after falling 23 per cent last year. The forecast implies mainland exporters will still have 60 per cent share of the market after the Sino-EU deal.

IHS's Germany-based principal solar research analyst, Stefan de Haan, expected mainland exporters to the EU to have to shift their focus to higher-end market segments, such as roof-top installations.

Less competitive mainland producers would have to rely more on the domestic market, Japan and India.

The mainland could become the world's biggest solar market for the first time this year, with demand of more than 7 GW, up 50 per cent from last year, it added.