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China vs West: Is a Solar Trade War About to Flare?

By Matt Daily, Christoph Steitz and Leonora Walet

Jan 18, 2011

(Reuters) – Germany’s fifth-biggest solar power park emerges as a smudge on the horizon long before you reach it on the outskirts of the small, sleepy village of Eberswalde, an hour’s drive north of Berlin. “In the far distance, you can see it,” Peter Kobbe says, pointing through heavy December snowfall as he steers his Citroen van along an icy road.

A Chinese-Western solar trade war could be on the cards (PHOTO: Reuters)

Kobbe, 64, works at Finow airport, where a local investment firm built the 58 million euro ($77 million) solar park in 2009. Finow itself was built by the Nazis before World War Two and later became one of the Soviet Union’s main Cold War hubs. Now the small aircraft that still use the airport share it with about 90,000 solar modules — which together generate enough to power 6,400 households a year.

“This is where they (the Soviets) used to store their nuclear weapons,” says Kobbe, who runs a small museum documenting the airport’s history, guiding his van over the snow-covered landing strip.

Now there’s a different foreign presence in Finow. When the first solar modules arrived for installation they came not from a local manufacturer — German solar company Conergy runs a factory just 45 minutes away in Frankfurt an der Oder, for instance — but from China’s Suntech Power Holdings, now the world’s largest maker of photovoltaic (PV) solar modules.

“We were quite surprised when the trucks brought Chinese modules, and not German ones,” Kobbe says.

“But they were probably cheaper.” Solarhybrid, which spearheaded construction of the park, says reductions in Germany’s renewable subsidies meant it had to use Suntech modules to stay competitive.

Germany has long been the global solar industry’s engine. Europe’s biggest economy consumed more than half the solar panels produced around the world in 2010. Solar accounts for just two percent of Germany’s power production, but the country added a record 8,000 megawatts (MW) of solar modules last year — equal to the capacity of eight nuclear reactors — far outpacing Italy, Japan and the United States.

So why are China’s solar companies benefiting at the expense of renewable energy manufacturers in Europe and the United States? Virtually non-existent a decade ago, Chinese solar companies now control two thirds of solar cell production in the $39 billion global PV market…




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