Thursday, February 26, 2009

More on China's Solar Boom

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The Oregonian/Amy Hsuan/February 21, 2009

NANTONG, China — In a hollow factory so new it smells of plaster, Lynn Sha's lone assembly line is laying the groundwork for a global solar eclipse.

Every five hours, a silicon-coated panel rolls out of QS Solar, a company just eight months in the business. Sha, a stylish twentysomething vice president, expects within months to pump out enough panels for a quarter-million households.

Never mind that until last year, QS Solar was QS Latex, a glove manufacturer with no experience making silicon anything.

"Soon, we'll be able to sell to our customers for just $1 per watt," says Sha, crossing the floor in towering heels. Little does Sha know her sky-high ambitions threaten to cast a shadow as far as Oregon.

At a buck-a-watt, solar — the world's most expensive energy — would beat today's cheapest power, coal-fired electricity. That would pave the industry's way to the rooftops of the masses, giving it a surefire edge in the world's race for affordable clean energy.

And, with next-to-nothing overhead and abundant cheap labor, Chinese companies are almost sure to get there first. More than any others, China's factories hold the promise of delivering solar energy at Wal-Mart prices, spawning a glut of panels worldwide.

But their zeal could dim Oregon's own solar boom, the pillar of the state's hope for economic recovery. Oregon officials are betting big with taxpayer dollars to snag solar manufacturers and their pledge of high employment — just as global prices are expected to plunge.

"I see more overcapacity coming out of Asia than anywhere else," says Christopher Dymond, a senior energy analyst with the Oregon Department of Energy. "We will see quite a few companies go out of business."

Over the past decade, China's unprecedented rise has elicited awe from across the world while stoking fears among competitors. There's little question that the world's fastest-developing nation means new possibilities for Oregon: New wealth in the most populous nation germinates demand for Oregon fruit, trees and nursery products. The government's enormous cleanup efforts open doors for Oregon's green experts. High-tech companies reap higher profits with a Chinese work force, reinvesting in American technology.

China's global shadow at times becomes a spotlight. A nation that not long ago seemed exotic and distant now looms close enough to shape Oregon's economy during a time of crisis and opportunity.

Booms and busts

Even with its damp climate, Oregon has appeal for the solar industry. California, the nation's biggest solar customer, is right next door. Oregon also boasts a high-tech work force with expertise in silicon, the essential ingredient to turn sunlight into electricity.

Its biggest sell: millions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize solar companies, expected to create thousands of jobs in the coming years. So far, the state has snagged photovoltaic giant SolarWorld, which unveiled the nation's largest solar plant, in Hillsboro, and other brands, including Sanyo and Solaicx.

But Oregon's much-hyped foray comes just after a historic boom for solar. With concerns over global warming and oil prices driving big investments in clean energy, worldwide production of solar products exploded by an average of 48 percent a year starting in 2002.

Venture capital poured in. Germany and Spain doled out incentives to consumers. Solar companies basked in a record $15.9 billion in profit in 2008.

Suddenly, dark clouds gathered. Germany and Spain cut consumers off. Tightened credit markets blocked financing for costly systems. Analysts predict that a stockpile of modules worldwide will drive prices down by 20 to 30 percent.

Already, Oregon officials say the promised employment boom won't be as big or easy as they'd once trumpeted as companies brace for a crash.

"We are entering a very dynamic and turbulent period in the solar industry," says Edwin Koot, CEO of SolarPlaza, a Dutch consultancy firm. "Everyone will be affected. But never underestimate the Chinese."

The Chinese boom

Three hours by car from Shanghai, Jiangsu province is China's new golden powerhouse. Here, in the marine-layer fog of the Yellow Sea, an estimated 500 companies have ignited in just a few years — a cluster of businesses similar to what Oregon officials hope for, only on a scale to match China's ambitions.

Already, companies here dominate the global landscape: Six of the top 15 solar manufacturers are Chinese, exceeding the numbers from solar stalwarts in Germany and Japan.

Analysts predict world demand for solar this year to be roughly 4.2 gigawatts, according to iSuppli, a research firm that tracks solar trends. Manufacturers across the globe plan to pump out nearly three times that, or 11.1 gigawatts.

Last year, China made up more than a quarter of the world's production, nearly matching all of Europe. Already, smaller factories in China are sputtering out. But the big Chinese companies show few signs of slowing.

"We aren't going to stop," says Thomas Young, investment relations director with Jiangsu-based Trina Solar, the world's 14th-largest producer. "We're going to put our foot on the gas and sometimes coast and sometimes brake. But we can handle lower prices because we have such low overhead."

China has no domestic solar market despite its surging energy needs, so it ships almost everything overseas. That's likely to be the case until prices crash.

"The Chinese tactic has been to scale up production and sell it to the Europeans at European prices," says Koot, the Dutch analyst. "Once the prices begin to plummet, they'll use it themselves for their domestic market. It's a smart strategy."

Most companies in China start like QS Solar, without much expertise or technology. But they know the formula for running a tight-ship factory — and can build one practically overnight. Not to mention, workers are a dime a dozen — and cost about that much.

"Chinese companies have been able to grow their capacity very quickly, faster than European companies," says Rory MacPherson, investor relations director with Suntech Power, a Jiangsu-based company that is the world's second-largest solar manufacturer. "And it's because they have such low manufacturing costs."

At Solarfun, nearly 15,000 modules are practically handcrafted each month. Founded in 2004 in Jiangsu and now the world's seventh-largest solar module producer, the company's campus houses more than 2,000 workers. In teams of 100, they solder cells, lay thin films of plastic and apply bar codes, one by one.

"Asian factories are much more disciplined than Western factories," says Harold Hoskens, Solarfun chief executive officer. "Where mechanization would outweigh the benefits of manual labor, it's a long way off, and we still have very good quality."

Worker productivity is meticulously recorded on whiteboards. A notation next to every worker's name indicates how many cells he or she has made — and broken. A perfect production record means a green smiley-face sticker next to a worker's name — and a $10 bonus, a hefty sum for workers who average about $150 a month. Workers who break five in a month get a red face and risk losing their job.

At the end of every month, each team produces 1.6 megawatts of energy, enough to provide 533 Oregon households a third of their energy needs. Their record of success: 96 percent.

"That is the human potential," says sales manager Yizhong Li.

Oregon competitors

SolarWorld's new Hillsboro factory is strikingly devoid of people. In an enormous production area, floor-to-ceiling machines hum, while robotic arms sort and move wafers. Computers control almost every step.

Mechanization, says Vice President Bob Beisner, is better because computers are more precise than people.

"You can set up a robot to handle the wafers gently and repeat it at high volumes," Beisner says. "To teach that to a human and have them repeat it is very, very difficult."

Still, the German company expects to eventually employ more than 1,000 people, in maintenance, administration or engineering. By early 2011, SolarWorld will pump out 500 megawatts of electricity-generating cells. And, despite the economic gloom, Chief Operating Officer Boris Klebensberger doesn't see downshifting expansion.

Still, he can't ignore China's meteoric ascent.

"We would be foolish if we didn't admit Chinese companies are our competitors," Klebensberger says. "So you have to be better, or you aren't going to survive."

For SolarWorld, survival rests on a tactic almost identical to that of the Chinese factories: scaling up production to bring down costs. The difference at SolarWorld is that the average salary is $3,200 a month for production workers, not the $150 paid in China.

Lower profit margins will be the wave of the future for solar companies. And those with lower costs will live to compete another day.

"The solar industry in the past four years has never had to face a competitive market," says Travis Bradford of the Chicago-based Prometheus Institute, which tracks renewable-energy industries. "The era of easy profit in this business has passed. SolarWorld has been a beneficiary of that."

SolarWorld, one of Germany's fastest-growing companies last year, counts on a loyal customer base and a 25-year warranty. It also banks on a brand that's far from China's image as a maker of cheap goods.

American-made is also a selling tool for John Sedgwick, co-founder of California-based Solaicx, which opened a Portland plant in late 2007.

"The whole theory is that we're providing a superior product," Sedgwick says. "The Chinese are competitors in that they make a similar product. But our technology is highly differentiated from the technology they use there."

But Chinese companies' quality is as high as their American and European competitors, Bradford says.

"So far," he says, "I have not heard of any substantiated quality issues from the top five companies in China."

Tough decisions

The world's largest trade show, in Munich last April, featured just one U.S. state with its own booth: Oregon.

That's where Nikolaus Meyer, CEO of Sulfurcell, a German solar manufacturer, first heard about Oregon's generous tax credits.

"I heard that if you build a factory in Oregon," Meyer says, "the government will pay for it."

He isn't entirely off. Oregon offers companies tax credits, job training and cheap loans. That's not including the tax rebates individual communities can throw in.

Sulfurcell plans to build a new factory within the next two years. The question for Meyer is where: Oregon or Asia?

Oregon could be a winner if the U.S. solar market takes off, says Meyer, who plans to visit the state this year. But China is cheaper.

"The Chinese are going to be my competition for a long time," says Meyer, on a tour of Chinese factories in November. "I need to know who my competition is."

It may all end the same: If Meyer can't beat the Chinese, he may have to join them.

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