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Solar power trade war heats up

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

New Statesman
A solar field in China. Photograph: Getty Images

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