Solar power trade war heats up

Angela Merkel steps in to quell fears over EU China trade links.

The sun doesn’t always shine on EU China trade links- German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to step in to quell fears of an impending trade war over the price of imported solar panels from China.

The European Commission is expected to decide by 5th June whether or not to impose an antidumping tariff of 47 per cent on the import of Chinese solar panels, after several European manufacturers have argued that China puts them at a disadvantage by unfairly subsiding its solar panel manufacturers.

With Chinese exports of solar panels worth 21bn euros a year, the stakes are extremely high and has forced Angela Merkel to step in to ensure the import tariff doesn’t spark a trade war. She and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang have begun talks during his first overseas tour to try and resolve the EU’s largest ever trade dispute.

“We should very intensely use the next six months, and Germany will do everything to ensure that the talks will really advance," explained Merkel, with Mr Li adding;

“(Import tariffs) will not only harm jobs in China, as well as development in the affected industries, but it will also affect development and endanger industry in Europe".

The Chinese solar power industry has grown vastly over the past five years, with the country’s solar panel manufacturers grabbing 80 per cent of the global market at the expense of US and European companies.

Analysts fear that such rapid expansion in the solar industry in China will lead to a period of rationalisation if foreign export markets dry up. The US already imposed import anti-subsidy duties of 4 per cent in March, followed by antidumping duties of 31 per cent in May.

This has pushed Suntech Power, China and the world’s largest producer of solar panels to the brink. Despite having sold more than 13m solar panels around the world, in March the company announced it had defaulted on a $541m bond payment, with the state having to step in to keep things afloat. LDK Solar has also ran into trouble, having to sell a 20 per cent stake to state-run Hen Rui Xin Energy.

The actions of the American Ministry of Commerce led to China hitting back by announcing antidumping and anti-subsidy investigations into imports of solar-grade polysilicon from the US. Many fear that if the European Commission decides to push ahead with its tariffs, China will similarly retaliate again, leading to much internal disagreement between EU members over the proposed tariffs.

An unnamed source told the AFP agency that 17 member states "have come out in opposition" of imposing Chinese solar tariffs, including the UK and Germany, while others such as Italy and France are in favour.

These latest developments closely mirror the situation in China’s wind energy industry, which has seen exponential growth over the past decade, but hides a number of deep-seated problems. After years of double-digit growth things are slowing down for Chinese wind manufacturers. In December, the US Commerce Department set import duties for Chinese wind towers at over 50 per cent, again depriving manufacturers of a key export market and throwing the industry into jeopardy.

The domestic wind market is incapable of supplying enough demand to meet the country’s massive manufacturing overcapacity. Despite impressive headline figures of 62.4 gigawatts of installed capacity by the end of 2011, China’s growth in wind power is somewhat misleading. Some 10bn kilowatt-hours of electricity produced by wind turbines in the country could not be accepted by the grid last year because of oversupply, plus a quarter of the installed capacity is not yet even grid connected, according to Greenpeace. As a result, industry analysts expect many of the smaller manufacturers not to survive as the industry tries to balance supply and demand, despite the government subsidies that have helped spur growth until now.

With similar accusations of heavy state subsidies ongoing in several other industry, most notably telecoms, the sun won’t set on this trade war for some time yet

A solar field in China. Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.