What solar shakeout? U.S. and China firms say there’s room for all

November 2, 2009

When California’s SunPower and China’s Suntech strode onstage at an industry conference last week, onlookers braced themselves for a bit of sabre-rattling, or at least an animated debate about two global superpowers’ role in solar energy.

Some bet on an entertaining battle of words just a day after Robert F. Kennedy, Jr took to the stage at the Solar Power International conference in Anaheim, California and said that the United States was in an “arms race” with the Chinese to make solar panels.

Instead, Tom Werner with California-based SunPower and Zhengrong Shi at Chinese panel maker Suntech were all smiles and even bordeline chummy — on the surface at least — preaching cooperation rather than competition.

 Asked about the potential for U.S. manufacturers to do business in China, SunPower’s chief executive Werner said the country would be a “huge opportunity.”

“Understanding the market and being proximate to the market is always an advantage … Partnering with a Chinese company would be a distinct advantage,” Werner said.

“I look forward to seeing Dr. Shi some time in the next few months and you can help me meet the right people,” Werner added, as he extended his hand.

“We will work together,” Shi said as the audience laughed and applauded their handshake.

Earlier in the session, Shi said U.S.-based First Solar’s plans to build a massive solar plant in China shows that “the Chinese market is also open to all technologies, to all manufacturers. Anybody can participate in the market.”

But Werner did slip in later that, while he believed there was indeed an “arms race” brewing, he said the only way to win wasn’t by dropping the price.

“Do you really think the solar customer is completely satisfied and it’s all about price?” he told reporters after the panel.

6 comments

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Talk about a hanging fly ball… There’s a select group of affluent people out there who care about style and branding… That’s great for the high end suppliers but when it gets down to the middle class solar customer everything most definitely is about price. Gucci doesn’t build box stores.

Posted by JT | Report as abusive

What I find interesting is how short term focused this cleantech debate is.First, it shows that the primary concern is not the environment, or bringing to market the best technologies. It is about jobs. Who owns what.Second, it also shows a misunderstanding of market dynamics and the quickly change tone towards products that do not measure up. Sure, buyers in China we for local products cheaper as they were viewed as cheaper, but those decisions are quickly chaning as buyers begin to see their equipment failures pile up

Of course it is not all about price! Only when an industry serves up a commodity product is it all about price. The next phase is all about integration of all the technologies involved in solar electric systems plus IT. Only then do we get solar energy appliances that cost little to install and maintain and are appropriate to real world conditions.

Posted by Jonathan Cole | Report as abusive

Solar is ALL about price. Yes, it’s nice to save the environment, but when the ROI for solar to replace conventional power is negative, or takes a 25 year time span to pay for itself, we’re still not at the point of universal adoption. The first Solar company to bring to market truly affordable and efficient solar energy, where there is an immediate ROI on the investment over conventional power, will win this contest.

Posted by Kevin | Report as abusive

Why would you invest in anything OTHER than Chinese solar manufacturing right now. Just like Germany found out, there’s no room in this business for dinosaurs. Whether it’s Nike, Trek bicycles or treasury bonds…. we’re the thinkers and the Chinese are ultimately the makers. Solar is no exception. Next time you’re online, look at two stocks (First Solar from America ($130 per share) and Renesola from China ($4 per share). Tell me which one has the most growth potential and which one looks bloated and ready to fall.

Posted by Efficiency Game | Report as abusive

This article seems to be confusing Nationalism and Capitalism. We live in a globalised Capitalist world.International Capitalism is uninterested in Nationality unless it confers it some economic advantage like lower taxes or lower wage costs.If you want to succeed in this international world you have to transcend the limitation of Nationalism and think globally.

Posted by Alan McCrindle | Report as abusive