The whole world using Japanese modules
In the year 2000 I organized a Dutch PV business mission to Japan. At that time, Japan was the world’s leading PV market and industry. After the trip to some impressive factories and projects, the participating Dutch Government executive concluded that it would not make sense to stimulate the development of the domestic PV industry in The Netherlands, since "The whole world will be using Japanese PV modules soon." Sharp was the world’s number one manufacturer.
A few years later, the government found out that the market was over-subsidized. Germany was then to take over when it introduced its Feed-in Tariff program. Everybody knows what happened next: from 2004, Germany is the world leader in PV market and industry development. Domestic manufacturing in former Eastern Germany was stimulated through attractive incentives. The FiT program did the rest. Germany started an impressive market and industry growth path. Many leading German and international PV companies such as Q-Cells, SolarWorld, Solon and First Solar benefited from attractive investment subsidies for new factories that helped them to produce cheaper solar cells and modules. It also led to the development of an innovative equipment manufacturer industry. All over the world, not least in China, German equipment contributed towards producing low-cost PV modules – and still is.
Without the unification of Eastern and Western Germany, incentives might never have been become available and who knows what the impact could have been on the development of the German PV industry. Of course, back in 2000, when the Japanese dominated the PV industry and market, no one could foresee a German unification. The future remains hard to predict...
Today, the Chinese have developed a huge PV industry, starting from scratch only 6 years ago. Who could have foreseen that? And remember that in 2008, the Spanish and German markets were hesitant and reluctant to accept cheaper Chinese modules. Quality was supposed to be less. While at the same time, German companies had rebranded modules produced in China. Nowadays, Chinese top brands are market leaders and fully accepted. After all, parts of these cells and modules are produced in fully automated processes using US and German manufacturing equipment.
Grow your market to grow your industry
So, what does this teach us? The best way to support domestic industry development is to create a domestic market – like Japan did in the early 2000s, Germany seven years ago and China is doing right now. China will sustain their industrial development and stimulate innovation, leading to further reduction of production costs. Cheap solar cells and modules will create new business and industrial opportunities in existing and new markets. Stimulating domestic market development could be a better way to create a flourishing domestic industry.
In a flourishing market, (foreign) manufacturers will likely start local production, because in the end it makes sense to reduce all costs, including shipment, transportation, financing, risk assurance and other costs related to producing goods far away from the market. In addition, most jobs in solar PV are created downstream in the supply chain and not in fully automated upstream production processes. The importation of cheap solar modules should be embraced as a stimulus for market and industry development.
Today China – tomorrow Korea?
No one can predict the future. One bursting real estate bubble in China could shake up the entire financial situation and PV business landscape. What the Chinese PV industry does today could be done tomorrow by India or Korea. Huge Korean industrial conglomerates have already made their first steps in the PV industry. LG, Samsung and Hyundai have serious ambitions and deep pockets. Their diverse activities and huge balance sheets could give them an interesting financial position which will enable them to survive the current consolidation phase in the solar industry. Although some competitors believe that Chinese PV manufacturers are being supported in an unfair manner, their loans from Chinese banks are at high interest rates, up to as much as 8%. Is that more unfair than a capital investment subsidy for production in some US State? Why are some US manufacturers producing in Asia or Germany?
The future: train harder and be innovative
Like in athletics, today’s winner could be tomorrow's number two. It does not make sense to cry over one lost game. Some time ago, Eastern German athletes won many gold medals at the Olympics. They were injected with steroids. It proved not to be a sustainable success model.
Don’t blame your competitors of unfair training practices. Instead, build the best facilities and invite the best competition into your country. Don’t fear them – rather get inspired. It is the best stimulus for new participants. And don’t blame the referee for unfair rules. Instead, improve your skills, exercise, train harder and be innovative. And be aware of your next competitors – they will very likely not be the ones you are competing with today!