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

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.