The US and China have been locked in a solar trade war since November, when Washington began investigating whether Chinese companies were dumping panels at prices below the cost of making them thanks to government subsidies.
The trade war was not welcomed by the likes of Suntech, a Chinese company that is the world's biggest solar panel maker, with US$2.9 billion (Dh10.65bn) of revenuein 2010. Andrew Beebe, its chief commercial officer, spoke to The National about the case and hopes for an industry recovery.
q What's your response to the American and European solar companies facing troubles that blame Chinese competition?
a In the US, there's basically a trade war that was started by a German company, and I call it sort of "proxy protectionism" Ö The entire effort was led by them, and it's a PR stunt in our view. Ultimately, we're a publicly traded company. Our books are completely open. We're New York Stock Exchange-listed. We don't make anything else. We don't make olive oil and rubber gloves, we make solar panels.
And so you can see very clearly whether we're selling below our cost of goods - and we're not. And so that's a spurious and absurd argument that this company is making and it's costing the whole industry millions of dollars in lawyers and lobbyists in Washington.
q What's the effect on you?
a So far the effect has been minimal. We're a global player, we have manufacturing in the United States, and we're able to adjust and adapt. Two things will happen: prices will go up for our customers and so ultimately jobs will be lost because of this dispute.
Jobs will be lost across any region that's impacted by it and they'll be lost in a few areas: one, the solar installers who rely on everyone's ultimate goal of making solar costs effective and, two, the many dozens of local suppliers that we buy from in the United States. Silicon is purchased from outside of China. Most of our equipment and our factories are purchased from the United States and Europe, and those companies will be very negatively impacted if this gets pushed through.
q Are these kinds of trade wars inevitable?
a Absolutely not. Again, this is one company. It's one company doing this. So the trade wars are not inevitable. In fact, what you see is a rallying cry of opposition to this. So you look at Dow Corning, Dupont, Applied Materials, the largest companies in the world, even FirstSolar, SunPower, very large solar companies standing up and saying, 'trade wars kill jobs'. There is not benefit to the industry from this trade war. There's potential benefit for one company and one company only.
q What about looking at the consolidation we've seen in the solar industry - is that a positive or a negative thing?
a In 2012, there's going to be consolidation, there's going to be liquidation, there's going to be capitulation - companies just getting out of the business. And that's a very positive thing, for sure. Obviously our customers don't want prices to go back up and, frankly, neither do we. When prices go down, volume goes way up and that's our goal.
It's our goal financially but it's also our goal from a values standpoint. But when you've got third-tier companies willing to sell below gross margin and willing to undercut to claw their way into the industry, and you've got too many of them, I think we actually have a sense of oversupply that is going to make it harder for customers to make decisions.
q What's your forecast for beyond 2012?
a 2012 has a perfect storm of challenges: massive oversupply, significantly reduced feed-in tariffs in Germany, probably significantly reduced feed-in tariffs in Italy as well. But a couple of things have now changed - demand is coming back, and it's expected in 2013 to be significantly greater level. So 2012 should be flat to 2011. 2013 will start its normal solar climb again.
At the same time, you've got a lot of tier-two and tier-three companies pulling out. The big driver is polysilicon prices bottoming out. Polysilicon now is in the US$25 [Dh91] to $30 [per kilogramme] range. We predict it will stay in that range for a long time, and that brings price stability. There's not some magic Chinese secret subsidy that's making all this stuff cost-effective. It's silicon.