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As U.S. Solar Grows, Will China Supply The Panels?

Solar power capacity in the U.S. doubled from 2010 to 2011, but the industries supporting that growth are in turmoil over who will supply the goods for future expansion – and for how much.

Solar power capacity in the U.S. doubled from 2010 to 2011, but the industries supporting that growth are in turmoil over who will supply the goods for future expansion – and for how much.

A new report found U.S. solar power doubled in 2011. The Washington Post reports the solar industry installed a record 1,855 megawatts of capacity in 2011, more than double the annual record of 887 megawatts set in 2010. And there’s more coming online this year:

“The record level of solar installations is enough to power more than 370,000 homes and marks the first time the U.S. solar market has topped one gigawatt in a single year. GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association estimate the U.S. solar market’s total value surpassed $8.4 billion in 2011.”

But Chinese companies make up five of the world’s top 10 solar panel manufacturers – supplying 22 percent of the market, according to another report released this week.

The top manufacturer is still U.S.-based First Solar, but there’s growing concern that China will put American manufacturers out of business with cheaper, heavily subsidized solar panels. As Sustainable Business Oregon reported:

“The report from Lux Research underscores the struggles facing Germany panel-maker SolarWorld AG, the 10th-ranked producer on the list that, through its Hillsboro-based North American headquarters, is embroiled in an effort to counter Chinese government subsidies by seeking tariffs on imported Chinese panels.”

Does it matter who supplies the panels?

As I reported earlier this month, the trade balance for solar panels shifted dramatically in China’s favor from 2010 to 2011.

American solar manufacturers say that’s because China’s subsidies allow for unfair pricing and “cheating” in the global marketplace.

“This is an instance where China has simply put its industry on steroids and it has run over us,” Ben Sentarris of SolarWorld told me.

They’re waiting for the Commerce Department to decide whether the U.S. can tax the imported panels to level the playing field. And there are signs the case will go their way.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has been blunt in his support for taxing Chinese panels. As he wrote in a letter to President Obama last year:

“Unless the U.S. takes aggressive action to combat the import surge of Chinese solar panels and the unfair trade practices that China employs, our efforts to facilitate the creation of the new jobs our economy needs will be substantially undermined.”

And President Obama has called Chinese trade practices “questionable” and “unfair.” This week, the U.S., Europe and Japan teamed up to challenge China’s dominance in the rare earth minerals trade. China currently produces 95 percent of the minerals used in high-tech products, and is accused of inflating the price by withholding exports.

Solar panel retailers and installers in the U.S. say the lower-priced Chinese panels are good for business and the expansion of solar power here. They also say taxing the imported panels will cost their industry 50,000 jobs.

But solar manufacturers say they’re afraid China will do the same thing with solar panels as it did with rare earth minerals – raising prices once the country gains a big enough share of the market.

Solar power SolarWorld

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