January 16, 2011

Solar Going to China

From the New York Times, "Solar Panel Maker Moves Work to China"

Aided by at least $43 million in assistance from the government of Massachusetts and an innovative solar energy technology, Evergreen Solar emerged in the last three years as the third-largest maker of solar panels in the United States.

But now the company is closing its main American factory, laying off the 800 workers by the end of March and shifting production to a joint venture with a Chinese company in central China. Evergreen cited the much higher government support available in China. . . .

Although solar energy still accounts for only a tiny fraction of American power production, declining prices and concerns about global warming give solar power a prominent place in United States plans for a clean energy future — even if critics say the federal government is still not doing enough to foster its adoption.

Beyond the issues of trade and jobs, solar power experts see broader implications. They say that after many years of relying on unstable governments in the Middle East for oil, the United States now looks likely to rely on China to tap energy from the sun.

Evergreen, in announcing its move to China, was unusually candid about its motives. Michael El-Hillow, the chief executive, said in a statement that his company had decided to close the Massachusetts factory in response to plunging prices for solar panels. World prices have fallen as much as two-thirds in the last three years — including a drop of 10 percent during last year’s fourth quarter alone.

Chinese manufacturers, Mr. El-Hillow said in the statement, have been able to push prices down sharply because they receive considerable help from the Chinese government and state-owned banks, and because manufacturing costs are generally lower in China.

“While the United States and other Western industrial economies are beneficiaries of rapidly declining installation costs of solar energy, we expect the United States will continue to be at a disadvantage from a manufacturing standpoint,” he said. . . .

Other solar panel manufacturers are also struggling in the United States. Solyndra, a Silicon Valley business, received a visit from President Obama in May and a $535 million federal loan guarantee, only to say in November that it was shutting one of its two American plants and would delay expansion of the other.

First Solar, an American company, is one of the world’s largest solar power vendors. But most of its products are made overseas.

Chinese solar panel manufacturers accounted for slightly over half the world’s production last year. Their share of the American market has grown nearly sixfold in the last two years, to 23 percent in 2010 and is still rising fast, according to GTM Research, a renewable energy market analysis firm in Cambridge, Mass.

In addition to solar energy, China just passed the United States as the world’s largest builder and installer of wind turbines. . . .

Evergreen was selling solar panels made in Devens for $3.39 a watt at the end of 2008 and planned to cut its costs to $2 a watt by the end of last year — a target it met. But Evergreen found that by the end of the fourth quarter, it could fetch only $1.90 a watt for its Devens-made solar panels. Chinese manufacturers were selling them for as little as $1.60 a watt after reducing their costs to as little as $1.35 or less per watt. . . .

Factory labor is cheap in China, where monthly wages average less than $300. That compares to a statewide average of more than $5,400 a month for Massachusetts factory workers. But labor is a tiny share of the cost of running a high-tech solar panel factory, Mr. El-Hillow said. China’s real advantage lies in the ability of solar panel companies to form partnerships with local governments and then obtain loans at very low interest rates from state-owned banks.

Evergreen, with help from its partners — the Wuhan municipal government and the Hubei provincial government — borrowed two-thirds of the cost of its Wuhan factory from two Chinese banks, at an interest rate that under certain conditions could go as low as 4.8 percent, Mr. El-Hillow said in August. Best of all, no principal payments or interest payments will be due until the end of the loan in 2015.

By contrast, a $21 million grant from Massachusetts covered 5 percent of the cost of the Devens factory, and the company had to borrow the rest from banks, Mr. El-Hillow said.

Banks in the United States were reluctant to provide the rest of the money even at double-digit interest rates, partly because of the financial crisis. “Therein lies the hidden advantage of being in China,” Mr. El-Hillow said.

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