Today the Federal Trade Commission ruled against Chinese solar manufacturers, finding that government subsidies harmed US companies. In the ruling, Chinese companies were assigned duties between 2.9 to 4.7 percent. The duties depended on the degree of subsidy assistance Chinese companies received. Another ruling will be made in June to determine the degree to which Chinese companies have been dumping solar panels on the US market. This additional ruling is expected to result in further duties and penalties.
The Solar Surge
These rulings and investigations come after a massive surge in amazingly cheap Chinese solar panel exports to the US since 2008. This influx, which almost everyone with any honesty is calling dumping, has resulted in average solar panel prices falling from $3 to less than $1 per watt over the same period. In fact, the lowest cost solar panels on the US market are now selling for less than 84 cents per watt. This extensive dumping has resulted in three US solar companies, including Solyndra, being forced to file for bankruptcy and has negatively affected every other US solar manufacturer.
The silver lining is that US solar energy consumers now have access to solar panels at much lower costs. And these panels are now rapidly closing the gap between fossil fuels, likely to beat coal on cost by 2015. But the rapidly falling prices may well drive all manufacturers except the Chinese out of this critical market. And this state-sponsored international monopoly may well be benevolent if not for the stark history of Chinese monopolization in other key areas. For example, Chinese state-sponsored industry moved to rapidly dominate rare earth metals and are now setting higher prices or denying access to rare earth metals altogether. Similar behavior with regards to solar panels may well prove disastrous in a world needing a rapid transition to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Government Spending/Perks Key to Chinese Dominance
So how do Chinese companies come so rapidly to dominate markets like solar? The answer is a combination of cheap loans, government payments on interest for the these loans, and predatory business practices. Cheap loans provided by the Chinese government resulted in the emergence of 700 new solar companies in China over the last ten years. In total, because of these loans, the Chinese now possess a capacity to manufacture 40 gigawatts of solar panels within one year. That’s enough solar panels to power all of New York State in just one year.
These state-sponsored loans may have provided the impetus for developing a world-dominating industry, but a number of other ‘perks’ aided the Chinese industry as well. For example, many Chinese manufacturers were able to purchase land directly from the state at 1/3 standard price levels. In addition, Chinese monopolization of rare earth metals has led to preferential pricing for raw materials feeding in to this state-sponsored industry.
But these aren’t the only advantages state sponsored Chinese companies enjoy. In addition to low interest loans provided to Chinese solar manufacturers, often the interest on these loans are paid, pro-bono, by the Chinese government.
So imagine you are a Chinese solar manufacturer. You receive nearly unlimited low interest loans from the government. You have much or all of that interest paid by provincial governments. The land for your plants is sold to you at major discounts and your raw materials are supplied to you at the lowest prices possible. This is all facilitated by the state-sponsored system. And, finally, you benefit from relatively low labor costs which give you a 3-4 percent price advantage. In fact, the other state-sponsored benefits are so great that the labor cost difference may as well be nil. In such a beneficial environment, it would require a stunning failure for you not to achieve market dominance.
Chinese Capitalize on State-sponsored Consumer Incentives
But what other benefits could a solar manufacturer in China look to gain from? Not just from the Chinese state, but from other states’ programs as well. Up until last year, the Chinese solar industry was almost entirely positioned for export. This strategy allowed them to benefit from state-funded programs that provided incentives for solar panel purchases. Already receiving so many benefits from the Chinese state, these solar exporters were rapidly able to dominate markets in Europe and the US, driving many other solar manufacturers to lay-offs and bankruptcies.
Meanwhile, the West suffers from an ideology that dramatically opposes the level of state assistance currently provided by the Chinese government. So most Western programs have been aimed at providing support for consumer purchases, not to providing seed funds for a fledgling industry, and, thus, those funds have been indirectly grabbed up by the surging Chinese solar industry.
Tariffs, Trade Barriers not Enough. Best Solution is Comparative Levels of Investment
In total, China is investing the equivalent to 90 billion dollars each year in alternative energy and efficiency. And this investment will be enough to dramatically reduce prices for both wind and solar power by sheer scale alone. If the United States and other western governments wish to host industries that become anywhere near as competitive, they will need to provide comparative levels of direct funding, year after year. Otherwise, the Western manufacturers will fail and the key emerging solar and wind industries will be entirely ceded to the Chinese. Enacting trade barriers, penalties and tariffs would, at best, only slow the transition to Chinese state-sponsored monopolization.