Chinese Solar Imports Drop But Prices Continue To Fall

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The cost of crystalline silicon (c-Si) photovoltaic (PV) panels in the US continues to fall despite the imposition of anti-dumping and illegal subsidy tariffs on imports from China. US imports of crystalline silicon solar cells and panels from China fell to their lowest level in at least two years even amid the peak, year-end selling season based on federal government data, the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM) yesterday announced in a press release.

US imports of c-Si cells and modules from China totaled $50.5 million in November, down from $75 million in October, and less than one-fifth the $278 million from October 2011, according to the Census Bureau’s “US Imports of Merchandise” database, CASM reported. Silicon PV cell and module imports from China are expected to be about one-third lower in 2012 than they were in 2011. Imports from China totalled about $1.7 billion through November this year, down from $2.4 billion in the year-ago period.

Solar PV system costs continued their seemingly inexorable decline all along the value chain in 2012, according to industry data.

Graph credit: IMS Research

Cost Reductions Continue Amid Trade Battles

An association of 231 US solar PV industry participants employing some 18,268 American workers, CASM was successful in bringing WTO dumping and illegal subsidy complaints before the US Commerce Deptartment and International Trade Commission (ITC). Duties ranging from around 24% to more than 250% went into effect December 7 — though, duty margins won’t be finalized for more than a year, according to CASM, as the initial tariff rates are based on 2011 import pricing and production costs.

“The tide of the Chinese government’s intervention in the U.S. solar market is showing signs of receding,” Gordon Brinser, president of SolarWorld Industries America Inc., the lead party in the WTO petitions, was quoted as saying in the press release.

“The relief could not come too soon. Workers for most manufacturers have suffered widespread cuts, and the finances of Western and Chinese companies alike have fared poorly. Unlike Chinese counterparts, however, the strongest non-Chinese operators cannot depend on their government to prop them up as they endure the consequences of China’s illegal trade practices.”

CASM’s unfair trade petitions sparked controversy, discord, and strident criticism within the US solar industry. Though imports from China have dropped substantially, the sharp rise in prices foreseen by some have yet to materialize.

The unsubsidized cost of renewable power produced from solar and wind energy will be no more expensive than that from oil, natural gas, and coal by the end of the decade, Energy Secretary Steven Chu predicted during a speech at a Pew Charitable Trusts event late March before the Commerce Deptartment and ITC had made their final determinations on Chinese import duties. Chu pegged installed solar PV grid parity at around $1 per watt.

This would mean reducing the cost of solar modules, or panels, to around $0.50/W, with corresponding reductions in remaining balance-of-system (BOS) costs of solar PV system installations. A GTM research report from late July forecast that this will happen a lot sooner, by 2016.

Prices for solar PV modules and panels have been falling fast from 2008 right on through 2012, according to industry data. The marginal weekly spot price of silicon solar modules (panels) was $0.654 per Watt, with a low price of $0.54 and a high of $1.00 per Watt as of January 16, 2013, according to PV Insights data.

The median installed price of residential and commercial PV systems in California dropped between 3% and 7% during the first six months of 2012, following year-over-year reductions of between 11% and 14% in 2011, according to the most recent Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s “Tracking the Sun” report.

Overall, installed costs for home solar PV panels for all of 2012 ranged between $1750 and $2500 per kilowatt (kW), or $1.75–$2.50 per watt, according to Renewable Green Energy Power data.

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