US Solar Giants Eye The China Market

Two big U.S. solar photovoltaic manufacturers – First Solar and SunPower – made moves this week to dial in the Chinese utility-scale market.

In separate announcements, thin-film leader First Solar said it would partner on a 2-megawatt demonstration project in Xianjiang province early next year. The company, already pulling out of a slump with a focus on growing markets such as Australia and India, believes this demo could “provide a strong platform to showcase the company’s state-of-the-art photovoltaic (PV) technology” in the biggest market of all.

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First Solar building a thin-film solar power plant in California (image via First Solar)

SunPower, meanwhile, said it is heading to China to do a joint venture with its C7 Tracker, a product introduced about a year ago that combines a horizontal, single-axis tracker with rows of parabolic mirrors that reflect light onto solar cell receivers. SunPower says it’s a utility power plant price buster, beating competing technologies by “up to 20 percent.”

SunPower and partners Tianjin Zhonghuan Semiconductor, Inner Mongolia Power Group and Hohhot Jinqiao City Development Company, plan to manufacture and deploy SunPower’s high efficiency, C7 concentrator solar systems in Inner Mongolia and other regions in China.

The Chinese market appears to be brimming with opportunity – but being China, it’s all very complicated and the real prospects might best be categorized as “unknown.” On the plus side, China is promising to go guano-crazy on installed solar starting, like, yesterday.

Just recently, the State Electricity Regulatory Commission reported that PV solar hooked in with China State Grid, the country’s largest grid operator, jumped from 530 megawatts to 2.71 gigawatts in the 12 months ended Sept. 30 – strong evidence that the central planners weren’t blowing smoke in July when they said they would up the target for installed solar to 21 GW in the current five-year plan that runs through 2015. Some analysts think 50 GW might be possible – maybe even 100 GW.

As good as all that sounds, on the flip side, one of the drivers behind the ramp-up in solar is to try to sop of the excess capacity of a wildly overbuilt domestic manufacturing sector.

Industry analyst IMS Research said earlier this fall that China’s crystalline PV module manufacturing capacity hit 32.6 GW in the first quarter of this year, outstripping the forecast of 30.6 GW for 2012 global installations. And an article in the Communist Party-connected China Daily put China’s manufacturing capacity even higher, at 50 GW. The article reported that 90 percent of China’s PV products are made for export, with about 60 percent aimed at Europe and 30 percent at the U.S.

First Solar and SunPower both believe they have superior technology to help China makes its solar work, and that very well could be true. But at a time in which the U.S. already has duties on Chinese solar imports and Europe is contemplating such a move, will China swing its doors up to the Western solar companies?

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.