China is running away with the green technology prize. It has conquered a third of the world market for solar cells and is on a breakneck course to build 100 gigawatts of wind turbines by 2020, doubling again the global capacity for wind power across vast stretches of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.
Suntech Power in Wuxi has just broken the world record for capturing photovoltaic solar energy, achieving a 15.6pc conversion rate with a commercial-grade module.
Trina Solar is neck-and-neck with America's First Solar, the low-cost star that has already broken the cost barrier of $1 (61p) per watt with thin film based on cadmium telluride.
The Chinese trio of Suntech, Trina and Yingling all expect to be below 70 cents per watt by 2012, bringing the magical goal of "grid parity" with fossil fuels into grasp.
The concept of grid parity is subject to fierce debate, mostly revolving around which form of fuel – nuclear, oil, coal, or renewables – enjoys the biggest implicit subsidy, and what the future price of crude is likely to be. Parity has already been achieved in hot spots. First Solar's 10-megawatt plant in Nevada can produce electricity without subsidies for 7.5 cents per kilowatt hour compared to 9 cents for fossil-based power.
Jeremy Leggett, founder of Britain's Solar Century, says that even this cloudy island can achieve grid parity for households by 2013, seven years sooner than expected. South-facing roofs and facades could one day provide a third of UK electricity needs.
The credit crunch has been brutal for solar start-ups in the West, but not for Chinese firms with access to almost free finance from the state banking system. They have taken advantage of the moment to flood the world with solar panels, driving down the retail price from $4.20 per watt last year to nearer $2 in what some say is a cut-throat drive for market share.
German pioneers Solarworld and Conergy allege foul play and have called for EU sanctions, accusing Chinese rivals of practices that "border on dumping". China's finance ministry says it intends to cover half the investment cost of solar projects. It is a life-and-death moment for the German solar industry, pioneers who provide 75,000 jobs and once led the world. "A large number of German solar cell and solar module producers will not survive," said UBS's Patrick Hummel.
Q-Cells is cutting four production lines and 500 jobs at its base in Thalheim, switching assembly to Asia. Goldman Sachs has added the company to its "conviction sell" list.
Roughly speaking, Chinese firms can undercut the Germans by 30pc. At root, it is a currency problem. China has stolen a march against Europe over the last five years by linking an already undervalued yuan to a weak dollar. While Beijing sheds crocodile tears about the falling greenback, it is deliberately riding dollar devaluation to protect its own export share. What is happening to German solar firms is a revealing case study of the slow-burn damage caused by currency misalignment.
The solar glut will not last. China is orchestrating a big switch into solar power for its own households with a feed-in tariff that lets people sell electricity to the grid. But that may come too late to save German firms....MORE
Monday, August 24, 2009
Solar: China powers ahead as it seizes the green energy crown from Europe (STP; TSL)
This is something different for the Telegraph's international business editor (and our despondent pal) Ambrose Evans-Pritchard: