Trina brings photovoltaic solar energy and life to Haiti

Three Chinese solar panel manufacturers recently joined former United States president Bill Clinton on an initiative to bring new energy to Haiti, donating solar panels to the country still recovering from a massive earthquake that struck more than two years ago.

Last week, about 300 PV photovoltaic (PV) solar panels donated by Changzhou-headquartered Trina Solar were installed in Haiti’s central plateau, where solar energy is expected to help create sustainable livelihoods for the locals.

Trina Solar plans to contribute up to $100,000 to this $1 million project. So far it has donated 300 PV panels (worth about $75,000), said Mark Kingsley, Trina Solar’s chief commercial officer. Earlier this month, the American traveled to Haiti to visit the installation sites of the panels, together with Clinton and NRG Energy CEO David Crane, whose company initiated the $1 million commitment of bringing new energy to Haiti through the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI).

The entire donation, however, is made possible only through the opportunities China can provide, he added.

"Thanks to China’s skills, solar power (from Trina and other Chinese companies) is so affordable that it can help address these real world problems," Kingsley said.

"It won’t get 300 PV panels for that price without the network of a global supply chain that includes (collaboration between) US and Chinese companies," said Kingsley, adding that Trina buys equipment from New Hampshire and manufactures the final product at its Changzhou headquarters.

After the devastating magnitude-7.0 earthquake hit the country in January 2010, Haiti still faces many challenges. Kingsley saw child malnutrition present in many places during his visit. He described the Haiti trip as "impactful" because he realized how much it meant for locals to have access to solar energy.

"The 24-hour power (the solar panels provide), for example, helps when women are having babies and that helps reduce the maternal mortality rate," Kingsley said.

Solar panels installed in remote hospitals, he added, provide clean water to help people fight cholera – a disease on the rise since the earthquake.

Kingsley said solar panels installed at fish farms not only double the amount of fish locally but also help create businesses for farmers to make their lives sustainable through solar energy.

Crane, who co-hosted the Haiti trip, said Trina Solar played "a crucial role in making the project a success", not only with the panel donations but also with its technical assistance.

According to Kingsley, Suntech and JA Solar are two other Chinese solar companies that have committed to this ongoing project.

"There is a tremendous need for new energy in Haiti. And providing clean energy from distributed sources like solar is an excellent solution, particularly given that Haiti otherwise depends on expensive imported diesel fuel to make electricity," Crane said.

Trina Solar was founded by Chinese entrepreneur Gao Jifan in 1998 and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2006. It has offices in San Jose, California, and Philadelphia. It hires international employees, like Kingsley – former chief marketing officer at GE Sensing & Inspection Technologies – to promote its brand globally.

"Projects like this can create a good common ground for the US and China to work together to come up with solutions and create a ‘pie’ together in the solar industry," Kingsley said, adding about 25 percent of Trina’s turnover comes from the US market.

But instead of a recent cohesive partnership, Beijing and Washington are now at odds over clean technology – solar power in particular. US companies have filed complaints about the Chinese government subsidizing the industry, which has resulted in a loss of jobs.

The US Commerce Department announced on Tuesday that it will impose preliminary duties on solar cells and panels from China. Suntech, the world’s largest solar panel maker, will have to pay a 2.9 percent tariff and Trina Solar will pay 4.73 percent.

Kingsley from Trina said that these duties issued by the US have created a difficult time for Trina Solar to conduct business in the US.

"It’s easier for us to do business in Europe than in the US," said Kingsley. He said despite this situation, the US is still an important market to the company.

Kingsley said what the US has done will only create a "lose-lose" situation in the end.

A recent study by the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE) shows that a 100 percent or 50 percent tariff on imported modules would kill about 50,000 or 43,000 American jobs, respectively, over the next three years.

"The money in solar is made in development or constructing solar (panels) whether in residential or utility fields," Kingsley said.

"For one manufacturing job we have in Changzhou, probably four jobs are (created) in the US. China is enabling the US solar (industry), working as a responsible partner," he said.