Australia’s only remaining solar PV panel manufacturer, the Adelaide-based Tindo Solar, has called on the federal government to enforce anti-dumping legislation to stop the flood of cut-price panels from China.
The Tindo Solar management made the call to government officials in private meetings on Friday when Prime Minister Julia Gillard attended the opening of the 60MW plant.
The management said they felt they got a sympathetic airing, and have also approached South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon to push for anti-dumping rules. “I am aware of the issue and the Australian Government is currently exploring options to remedy,” Gillard was quoted in a statement issued by Tindo Solar.
CEO Adrian Ferraretto said his company was not calling for tariffs – as had been imposed in the US and is being considered in Europe. “We can compete with the Chinese in a fair market,” he told RenewEconomy in an interview.
But Chinese firms all across the spectrum were dumping panels below cost in Australia, and some tier 3 manufacturers – propped up by Chinese government support – were quoting prices of less than 50c a watt.
That’s less than half their real cost,” Ferraretto said. “If it was a clearance sale, you’d accept that. But they clear this stock out, make more, and then do it all over again.” He said there are about 5,000-6,000MW of surplus stock in China.
Tindo Solar, which began production earlier this year, is targeting the niche premium market. Its panels feature micro-inverters which improve output and performance and boast a “world-first” 25 year warranty.
However, the plant is still operating well below capacity, with around 1,000 panels a month – compared to its annual capacity of 240,000.
Tindo Solar is Australia’s only remaining solar PV manufacturer following the closure earlier this year of the Silex Solar plant in Homebush, which had attempted to revitalize the previously mothballed BP Solar facility.
Silex Solar ceased manufacturing solar cells at Homebush because it could no longer compete with Chinese imports, and later conceded defeat on the module market as well. Origin Energy, also wrote off its investment in the Sliver solar PV technology, which had originated at the Australian National University, and had been under development in the US in a joint venture with Micron Resources. It closed its plant there because it could no longer compete with China.
Ferraretto repeated his claims made in an interview with RenewEconomy earlier this year that Tindo Solar can match the Chinese on manufacturing costs – at least on like for like quality – but it cannot afford to sacrifice its margins in the same way as the Chinese manufacturers. Recent estimates put combined losses this year – even among the tier one Chinese producers – at more than $3 billion since the start of 2011.
Li Junfeng, deputy director of the energy research institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, and one of the most influential people in the development of China’s renewable energy policy, recently told the Financial Times that at least half of global solar panel manufacturing capacity will have to shut down through “powerful market competition” and “cruel elimination”. “Without a huge capacity phase-out there is no way to solve this crisis,” he told the FT.
California utilities look to the future
It was refreshing to see a long-term view taken by California’s Public Utilities Commission over contracts written to support new solar thermal power plants in that state. California, of course, has a 33 per cent renewable energy target for 2020, but PPAs struck by its utilities have to be reviewed by the CPUC to ensure they are fair to customers.
In its latest ruling, the regulators approved two out of five proposed PPAs for solar projects to be developed by Brightsource Energy, choosing the projects that will develop new technologies because these would ultimately benefit the customers in the future. The projects approved include the Sonoron West project which will include molten salt storage that will allow the plant to continue generation several hours afer the sun has set.
“Storage significantly improves the value” of solar-thermal systems, CPUC President Michael Peevery said. “Ratepayers’ long-term interest will be best served in my view by beginning to invest now in advanced technologies.” That criteria also earned a contract for the Rio Mesa 2 project, which doesn’t have storage but includes technical advances that are considered “a necessary precursor” to developing solar-thermal systems that do use molten salt.
Solar thermal is more expensive than solar PV, which is why many projects have switched technologies, and solar thermal plans need the support of higher priced PPAs. However, CPUC commissioner Michel Florio said the Sonoran West project was an “extremely valuable” technology that is “really what we’re going to need in the future,” and so was worth the investment.
What a contrast to the position taken in Australia by the bulk of utilities and the statutory authorities that regulate and deliver judgement on the industry in Australia. Let’s hope that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is able to make similarly inspired decisions.
One million panels and counting
On the subject of California, Warren Buffet’s MidAmerican Solar and First Solar have announced the installation of one millionth solar PV unit at the 550MW Topaz solar farm that is currently under construction in California. The solar farm will eventually feature up to 9 million individual modules. Construction work on the project started in late 2011, with the first module installed in May this year. The project is scheduled for completion in 2015. Australia’s largest solar farm, the Greenough River project also built by First Solar, boasts 168,000 panels and a rated capacity of 10MW. Topaz has a 25-year PPA with a local utility.
BIPV market to boom
The market for BIPV (building integrated solar PV) is expected to treble in the next three years to become a $7.5 billion market by 2015. Most of this growth is expected to come at the expense of conventional solar panels (that market is expected to contract to around $8 billion by 2015), and two-thirds of it will come from new building, installed in walls and glass products. Several Australian companies are involved with BIPV products including DyeSol and Bluescope.