Solar executives wary of trade complaint vs China
DALLAS (Reuters) - A trade complaint filed by a group of solar companies against China drew skeptical reviews from inside the industry, with many fearing a trade war could disrupt growth.
On Wednesday, seven U.S. solar manufacturers asked the Obama administration to slap duties of more than 100 percent on China imports, which they said were unfairly undercutting U.S. prices and destroying American jobs.
But many U.S. and European companies supply China's industry with products used to make solar cells, while others end up buying those finished cells to put in their own solar modules.
"It's a really difficult issue for everyone," said Tom Hecht, head of U.S. sales for Germany's Schott Solar. "Any trade war is damaging to the industry."
Fear of triggering retaliation from Beijing or angering the Chinese companies appeared to be the reason that six of the companies that filed the complaint chose to remain anonymous, several industry experts said.
Only SolarWorld Industries, the U.S. arm of Germany's SolarWorld AG, has made its name public.
China's solar industry has grown rapidly over the past five years, led by companies such as Suntech Power Holdings, Yingli Green Energy and Trina Solar. Analysts and industry executives have blamed the rising output of panels from China for pushing some U.S. companies into bankruptcy this year.
A glut of solar panels has helped push down prices by about 40 percent so far this year, shrinking margins for nearly all manufacturers.
But Kevin Kilkelly, SolarWorld's U.S. president, said the Chinese companies had flooded the United States with panels at cut-rate prices simply to win market share.
"In July alone, (China's U.S. shipments) far outweighed those from all of 2010 combined," he told Reuters. "So we said we have to take action."
Many executives from the United States and Europe have privately complained for years about China's impact on the solar markets, but most said the business had become so globalized that penalizing one country would not help companies that are struggling to survive.
Still others appeared wary of triggering a trade war that could see China shut foreign companies out of its market, which has become one of the fastest-growing renewable energy centers in the world.
First Solar, the largest U.S. solar company and the industry's lowest-cost manufacturer, has signed agreements that could result in it building huge solar power plants in China, although it has done only modest pilot projects there so far.
"What we believe in is free and open market access here and everywhere else in the world," First Solar Chief Executive Officer Rob Gillette told reporters at the Solar Power International trade show in Dallas this week.
Trade relations with China have become a hot issue ahead of the 2012 U.S. presidential and congressional elections. Last week the Senate passed a bill aimed at Beijing's currency practices, although the proposal faces an uphill battle in the House of Representatives to become law.
Others at the show said the trade complaint gave the industry a black eye, something many found unwelcome following the bankruptcy of Solyndra, which collapsed after receiving more than $500 million in government loans.
"The outside world looking at renewables as a whole says: 'Well, this is just proof that solar is not a business yet -- let's just ignore it for another five years,'" said Julian Hawkins, head of sales and marketing for U.S. manufacturer Abound Solar.
"I'm not really sure at times that people go through all the repercussions."
(Reporting by Matt Daily and Nichola Groom; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)