China to set solar feed-in tariff by year-end

China is preparing to launch a nationwide feed-in tariff for utility-scale solar plants by the end of the year, according to Suntech Power, one of the world’s largest makers of solar panels.

The tariff, which would guarantee solar farm operators above market rates for the energy they produce, is expected to fall between US$0.16 and US$0.22 per kilowatt hour of electricity produced at large-scale photovoltaic arrays, Suntech chairman Zhengrong Shi told Power Engineering Magazine at the weekend.

The range is significantly higher than the average rate of US$0.05 per kilowatt hour paid to coal-fired electricity generators and is expected to bolster the financial case for a raft of proposed solar projects.

China is aiming for an installed solar power capacity of 2 GW by 2011, nearly a 15-fold jump from the 140 MW capacity it had at the end of last year, according to people familiar with the matter.

The National Energy Administration has decided to expand the country’s solar power capacity to 2 GW in the next two years, with a subsidized price for solar power of 1.09 yuan per kWh, the source said.

China is trying to catch up in a global race to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The country, which revised its 2020 target for solar power capacity from 1.8 GW to 20 GW in its new energy stimulus plan, added 40 MW in new capacity last year.

Six regions and provinces in Northwest China are the most suited for installing solar PV stations in terms of sunshine days. These are Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Shaanxi, said Shen Yanbo, an expert from the National Climate Center.

The government’s new policy would come as a boost for solar energy in the domestic market and create greater opportunities for companies involved in the entire solar supply chain, said Zhang Shuai, a new energy analyst with Sinolink Securities.

Top panel-makers, including Suntech, Yingli Green Energy and LDK Solar, are expected to benefit from the revised goal.

The solar industry has been hit hard since the end of last year due to freezing credit resulting from the financial crisis and an oversupply of solar panels that have cut prices sharply.

China is considering enhancing incentives at a time when European countries such as Germany and Spain, the largest solar markets, are pulling back on incentives, thereby slowing the market.

Although China has been the largest solar panels supplier in the last two years, it played an insignificant role in the domestic solar photovoltaic (PV) market. But new policies are spurring a change this year.

The government in March approved a subsidy of 20 yuan per watt for solar PV systems larger than 50 kW fixed on building roofs.

The subsidy, which could cover half the cost of installing the system, was popular among developers, attracting applications equivalent to the building of 1 GW of solar power.

For ground-mounted projects, the government is paying a feed-in tariff for the electricity generated, instead of a subsidy based on the projects’ capacity.

It has set a price of 1.09 yuan per kWh for a 10-mW solar PV power plant in Dunhuang, nearly three times the rate paid by coal-fired power plants.

"The subsidized price of 1.09 yuan is not ideal for solar panel players to make money from these projects," said Li Junfeng, deputy director of the Energy Research institute under the National Development and Reform Commission. "The profitable price would be between 1.3 yuan per kWh and 1.5 yuan per kWh, depending on different producers."

He said the government still needed to adjust the feed-in tariff if the domestic PV market had to develop faster.

Besides the subsidy component, some Chinese solar panel makers would be able to make money when the production cost comes down to 1 yuan per kWh within the next two years, company insiders said.

Sun set to shine on solar industry in China

As the world’s largest solar-panel producer for the last two years, China already is a major solar player. But now, some industry experts say, it’s expanding from being mainly a solar-panel supplier to also becoming a substantial customer.

"China, which already is important in production, is also going to be a large solar market," Gerhard Stryi-Hipp, head of energy policy for the Fraunhofer-Institute for Solar Energy Systems, said last week at a roundtable to discuss trends in advance of the Intersolar North America conference next month. That’s an exciting prospect, as China — with its population of 1.3 billion — is soon expected to overtake the United States as the largest energy consumer in the world.

New Chinese policies are spurring the transition, Stryi-Hipp says. The country in March approved a subsidy for building-mounted photovoltaic systems which could pay up to 20 yuan per watt for systems larger than 50 kilowatts. For ground-mounted projects, the government is paying a feed-in tariff for the electricity generated, instead of a subsidy based on the projects’ capacity. It has settled on a price of 1.09 yuan per kilowatt-hour for a 10-megawatt ground-mounted project in Dunhuang, the first in a series of ground-mounted projects, says Jenny Chase, manager for New Energy Finance’s solar insight service. That’s better than it could have been — some companies actually bid at a loss for the project — but still far lower than the European feed-in tariffs, she says.

While New Energy Finance forecasts that the rooftop subsidy is only likely to drive 50 to 100 mW of solar installations, Chase says the provinces could end up driving additional demand by offering their own installation incentives. Jiangsu province, for example, has announced plans to install 260 megawatts of solar through 2011.

On top of all this, the country has what Polly Shaw, director of external relations for Suntech Power, called the "most aggressive" renewable portfolio standard in the world. It aims to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, with some 100 gigawatts of wind capacity and 1.8 GW of solar.

The country is already rethinking its solar target, and will "probably" revise it to 10 or even 20 GW this year, Shaw said. "Significant attention is being paid to solar in China," she said. "I think we’re going to see a massive market starting up there, just like in the US."

Altogether, Chase expects to see 150 to 300 MW of new photovoltaic installation in China this year, up from 40 MW last year, and predicts the market could "easily" exceed 1 GW in 2010. "We do believe China is on the cusp of becoming a major solar market, though I suspect entirely for domestic producers," she said, adding that the market growth still won’t be enough to counterbalance the current oversupply of solar panels and increase prices.

Of course, we’ve been hearing about China’s enormous solar potential for years, and — so far — it’s remained just that. Other analysts, including Paula Mints, a principal analyst at Navigant Consulting, says China will take more time to take off. After all, cheap coal plants are still fairly easy to start in the country, she says.

Shi said that the company was "still awaiting clarification" on the precise details of the policy, but he added that it had "the potential to drive the market up by at least 100 MW to 200 MW per year".

According to a recent research report by US investment bank Cowen & Co, the establishment of a solar feed-in tariff "could boost Suntech and other China photovoltaic names", many of whom have endured a rough 12 months as a result of weaker than expected global demand and a resulting surplus of solar panels.

Any feed in tariff could also provide a particular boost to China-based manufacturers as a result of the government’s controversial "buy Chinese" procurement policy for domestic infrastructure projects.

Some industry observers believe that the solar tariff may vary by region – a policy that applies to China’s feed-in tariff for wind farms, which was announced last month.

China’s solar tariff rates may be set in accordance to the solar resources for each region, with less sunny areas meriting higher charges to encourage the development of projects that would otherwise deliver lower financial returns.