Last month's column discussed the U.S.' role as an emerging leader in the global solar installation market – a sentiment that was expressed over and over at the Intersolar North America conference.
Similarly promising forecasts turn up repeatedly in recent research studies. Whether examining the residential-, commercial- or utility-scale market, nearly everyone agrees that the U.S. is positioned to be a major global solar demand center.
Unfortunately, however, the same cannot be said for the U.S.' role as a manufacturer of solar products. In fact, one week in mid-August brought a succession of news stories that, one after another, reiterated the sad realities of global manufacturing competition in the solar sector.
First, Thornton, Colo.-based Ascent Solar – which, according to Bloomberg, has lost 64% of its value this year – announced that Chinese construction company TFG Radian Group was buying a stake in the company. Under the deal, TFG will build a fab using Ascent's proprietary technology – in China.
Then, we found out that Devens, Mass.-based Evergreen Solar had filed for bankruptcy. Company executives cited an inability to compete on cost with Chinese manufacturers.
The company had already generated outrage in Massachusetts and beyond earlier this year, when it shut down its factory in the Bay State after receiving government incentives and being trumpeted as a symbol of the U.S.' new solar manufacturing economy.
The next day, the news broke thatÂ SOLON Corp. was ending module manufacturing operations at its Tucson, Ariz., facility. The company blamed the ‘rapidly changing solar market.’
Although SOLON's announcement did not directly mention Chinese competition, the phrase ‘rapidly changing solar market’ has all but become synonymous with ‘growing market share of low-cost Chinese module producers.’
Of course, numerous solar manufacturers up and down the supply chain – from silicon processors to inverter providers – have found success in the U.S. and (as far as we know) have no intention of leaving.
But this latest set of bad news from U.S. module manufacturers is a continuation of a disturbing trend. What should the federal government be doing to stem the tide? Adding more incentives? Revising the business-tax structure? Or nothing at all?
The U.S. Department of Energy's latest solar manufacturing initiative – SUNPATH – seeks to keep healthy U.S. start-ups from fleeing to lower-cost locales as they ramp up. The $50 million program must contend with the added challenge of launching during a still-dreary economic climate, but it could be a good start.Â Â Â Â
This Sun Dial column was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Solar Industry.
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