(Corrects GCL 2009 production figure in paragraph 9)
By Leonora Walet, Asia Green Investment Correspondent
HONG KONG, Aug 27 (Reuters) - A Chinese ban on imports of a waste material used for solar wafers may be bad news for foreign competitors but it is a big boost to China’s solar sector.
Scrap polysilicon, which can be reused to make solar wafers, is low-grade silicon that fails to meet the grade for chips found in most electronics.
Beginning this month, China stopped accepting scrap polysilicon to comply with environmental regulations.
The ban threatens the income of Chinese scrap polysilicon traders and limits the market for companies that sell to them, such as top contract chipmaker TSMC (2330.TW). It is particularly harsh for small and new domestic solar players who rely on the cheap material to make wafers and panels.
For China’s polysilicon companies, including GCL-Poly Energy Holdings (3800.HK) and LDK Solar LDK.N, the ban is an opportunity to expand business. For foreign rivals South Korean OCI Co Ltd (010060.KS), MEMC Electronic Materials Inc WFR.N or Japan’s Tokuyama Corp (4043.T) the ban is a potential threat.
China produces over 60 percent of the world’s solar panels, and is among the heaviest users of pure polysilicon and the scrap variety. Scrap polysilicon accounts for up to 30 percent of silicon fed into some of the solar wafers and panels in China.
“In a way, the ruling was designed to protect (China’s) very young polysilicon industry,” said KK Chan, chief executive of private equity firm Nature Elements Capital. “The sector needs all the help it can get given a supply glut of the material.”
The ban comes at a time when Chinese polysilicon companies are ramping up production, despite an oversupply of the key solar component.
GCL-Poly, which acquired $3.4 billion worth of solar assets in June, is on track to produce about 7,500 tonnes of polysilicon by year end. LDK Solar aims to produce 5,000 tonnes by 2010.
After the credit crunch dried up funding for solar projects, the sector was hit by a massive oversupply of polysilicon. Prices fell to $69 per kilogram from its peak of $400 in 2008.
China’s Environmental Protection Ministry said it imposed the ban because the heavy chemicals that come in contact with scrap polysilicon when reused to make solar wafers and panels produce waste that could harm the environment.
The ministry said in a notice posted on its website last month that the regulation was imposed in line with China’s solid waste pollution laws.
A ministry spokesman declined to comment.
“This is positive for China’s polysilicon sector, and the environment,” said GCL-Poly president Hunter Jiang.
The new rule is slowly having a positive impact for local makers of the solar component. Spot prices of polysilicon in China rose to $72 per kg in August from $67 in July weeks after the rule was enforced, said New Energy Finance analyst Julia Wu.
“The segment most likely affected by the policy are local panel and wafer makers, especially the smaller ones,” Wu said.
Established Chinese solar wafer companies are least affected.
“It should not have an impact, given there is sufficient supply of polysilicon in the market,” said Renesola chief finanical officer Charles Bai. (Additional reporting by David Stanway in Beijing and Suilee Wee in Hong Kong; Editing by Chris Lewis)