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Solar storm

Posted 28/05/2013 by sevans

In the June issue of C&I, which will be dropping on your doormat in the next few days, we look at the trade war that is brewing between the EU and China over solar panels. Now in the end no trade war has ever really benefited anyone – certainly the consumer is the ultimate loser. In this case, European consumers have benefited from the lower pricing that has been available, although the impact on the European solar industry has been much less beneficial resulting in the current dispute.

With the new Chinese premier visiting Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has tried to cool the rhetoric but there have already been threats from the Chinese to open an anti-dumping complaint against some European chemical companies, including Solvay, targeting chlorine products such as perchloroethane and tetrachloroethane, according to the newspaper Les Echos earlier this week. It was also suggested that this could be extended to US companies, and follows a previous threat concerning unwelded pipes.

As if this dispute was not enough, according to information provider HIS, global capital spending in the OPV supply chain is currently at its lowest for seven years, with a 36% fall in spending over 2012. IHS says this is the second year of contraction, following a 75% fall in 2012. The 2013 is expected to be the lowest level of spending since the peak of $2.4bn in 2006. There is some good news on the horizon, however, as capital expenditure is expected to rebound in 2014, with a 30% rise to an estimated $3.0bn.

In fact, most observers believe the outlook is still very sunny for solar energy. HIS predicts that PV installations will add 35GW of capacity globally during 2013, equivalent to 12% growth. This is described as the first time that this level of installation has been reached, charging past the estimated 31GW in 2012. While Europe pioneered the drive into solar energy, the progress has slowed considerable, not just because of the current dispute but HIS believes that the main growth will be in other markets.

US consultant Lux Research ages and predicts that installed solar capacity is expected to grow to 13.5GW in the Asia Pacific region, while demand will reach 1GW in the Middle East and Africa. 

Such is the confidence regarding the impact of solar energy, in the US, for example, a recent survey by New England Clean Energy revealed that US homeowners believe solar energy is a better investment than a major property renovation or the purchase of a new car. Some 70% of respondents favoured solar energy, compared with just 1% favouring a new car and 29%, property renovation. Solar energy has also become the single largest source of new grid capacity in the US, with more than 44MW of capacity coming on line from seven major projects, says the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a report: Energy Infrastructure Update, published in March 2013.

Solar energy is having a hard time in the UK, however, despite these glowing predictions of growth elsewhere in the world. High profile individuals who have complained about plans for nearby solar farms have changed the direction of the debate about the whole subject. This has been matched by claims that the savings promoted have not materialised, with a massive increase in complaints about solar panels, according to the US Renewable Energy Consumer Code. They may also increase following the sharp fall in the feed-in tariff.

Part from governments severely curtailing their feed-in tariffs, not just in the UK but also across Europe, one of the criticisms levelled at the PV energy industry has been that the rapid growth of the sector may have actually exacerbated the climate change problem as the construction of solar modules, etc have consumed fossil fuels. However, US researchers at Stanford University say that in 2012, for the first time, the electricity generated by solar panels exceeded that consumed in the production of solar modules, and that with current development of the market, the global PV solar energy industry may begin to pay off its energy debt as soon as 2015, and certainly no later than 2020.

So where are we now? Solar energy is still a successful renewable energy source, and it will have specific regional benefits that will continue to boost its expansion. Even in the UK, it can still be an excellent solution but each installation needs careful consideration. 

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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