There is not much to laugh about in the European solar industry at the moment. This was very evident at the Intersolar Europe trade fair, which just closed on June 14. The number of exhibitors shrunk by 16 percent compared to last year, and the number of exhibitors from China was down by as much as 25 percent.
Carsten Körnig, Managing Director of the German Solar Industry Association, remained optimistic, seeing 2012 as a continued year of market growth. There are indications of this, primarily in China but also in the U.S., as well as in a number of emerging countries. Growth in China is set to stand at four gigawatts in 2012; the U.S. is predicted to add three gigawatts.
The storage of solar power and the development of high-performance batteries and solutions for energy management was one of the central themes of Intersolar this year. Energy storage solutions were on display from 140 companies, including ADS-tec, Akasol, AS Solar, Centrosolar, IBC and Kyocera. One particular highlight was the improved performance of lithium-ion batteries. Most vendors are focusing on the battery management system, as well as the batteries themselves.
Kyocera combines photovoltaics, an energy storage system, and cogeneration to cover heat requirements, as well as electricity needs. Voltwerk electronics is displaying a storage system that can cover approximately 70 percent of the total electricity consumption of a single-family dwelling. SolarWorld's SunPac K 10.9 has charging and discharging functions in one three-phase accumulator-inverter module, meaning that additional charge controllers are no longer required. Another hot topic is the combination of heat and power production, be it in PVT modules or in systems where the solar panels are combined with heat pumps.
The debate over the future of solar subsidies was another primary topic at the show. Cuts of 15 percent at the beginning of the year are set to be followed by further drastic reductions. Agreement is expected to be reached in summer 2012. This could even enter into effect retroactive to April 2012.
However, it was not only the German market that is of concern to the companies appearing at Intersolar. Excess capacity and falling prices are making business difficult in many countries. The industry is particularly irritated with competition from China, which is able to undercut the prices of local manufacturers with what is believed by many to be unfair state support. Punitive tariffs such as those in the U.S. are frequently discussed in Europe but remain a subject of contention. SolarWorld is hoping to find support for this, while the trade association EPIA maintains a neutral stance. The strong German Solar Industry Association is also set to remain neutral, stated Managing Director Carsten Körnig in response to an inquiry from Greentech Media.
All companies active in the German market are represented, emphasizes Körnig. However, Frank Asbeck of SolarWorld has the support of the new Federal Environment Minister, Peter Altmaier. The minister spoke out in favor of tariffs in the magazine WirtschaftsWoche. Others are skeptical. The Chairman of Phoenix Solar AG, Andreas Hänel, voted against trade restrictions, which he sees as destroying the market. Another aspect is that China might impose sanctions against foreign imports in response. "We Europeans need to consider carefully what effect this would have on the export of our own goods to other countries," said Hänel in the Börsen-Zeitung.
Suntech Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Beebe considers the chances of the plaintiffs in the EU to be low. Manufacturers representing at least 25 percent of production would have to stand behind the action. It would be difficult to unify such a group. Even solar experts like Hans-Josef Fell, energy expert of the Green party and co-founder of the Renewable Energies Act sees no benefit to be gained from a closing of the market. Instead, impetus should be upon gaining fair access to the Chinese market.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel missed out on an opportunity to push this at her recent meeting with the Chinese government leader Wen Jiabao at the Hannover Messe Industrie in April 2012, according to Fell.