Chinese photovoltaic solar energy makers eye a nuclear-free Japan

After suffering losses last year amid US anti-subsidy and anti-dumping investigations, Chinese solar panel manufacturers may be seeing a light near the end of the tunnel: a nuclear-free Japan.

Even before Japan announced Sunday that it shut down the country’s last working nuclear power plant, Chinese photovoltaic companies began tapping the Japanese market in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis that followed a massive earthquake and tsunami in March last year.

Since the start of this year, at least five Chinese solar panel manufacturers, including Hebei-based Yingli Green Energy, Jiangsu-based Hareon Solar Technology Co Ltd and Shanghai-based Chaori Solar Energy Science & Technology Co Ltd, have set up offices in Japan, eyeing the world’s third-largest economy for new business opportunities.

Suntech Power Holdings Co Ltd, China’s largest manufacturer of photovoltaic cells, set its foothold in Japan in 2006 by acquiring MSK Corporation, one of Japan’s biggest solar energy players.

Japan used to rely heavily on nuclear power to fuel its economy, which was estimated at $5.85 trillion in 2011.

"(The cutoff of all nuclear reactors in Japan) will definitely give the Chinese photovoltaic industry a new opportunity," said Wang Liusheng, an analyst with China Merchants Securities.

Wang expected the Japanese government to adopt an electricity consumption subsidy policy this year, a move that would make Japan "a very attractive market."

Of the world’s 24-gigawatt solar power installed capacity last year, Japan accounted for about 5 percent of the total, ranking fifth in the worldwide installed photovoltaic panel module capacity last year, following Italy, Germany, the United States and China, according to IMS Research, a consulting company offering studies for the global electronic industry.

Major Japanese photovoltaic cell maker Kyocera Corp plans to build a 70,000-kilowatt solar power plant in Kagoshima starting in July, while other photovoltaic players such as Softbank Corp and Sharp Corp have also announced similar plans to fill the gap left by the shuttering of nuclear power plants.

China produces the world’s largest number of solar panels, but the ongoing anti-subsidy and anti-dumping probes by the US government against Chinese manufacturers overshadows the Chinese photovoltaic industry’s overseas growth potential, as more than 90 percent of solar panel products made in China are for export.

China itself is a vast market with great potential for the solar power industry as the country is stepping up efforts to cut the consumption of fossil fuels in order to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

In a pilot program called "Golden Sun," China’s Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Science and Technology said the government will subsidize 1.71 gigawatts of solar power projects this year, with a subsidy of 5.5 yuan (87 cents) for every kWh of solar power.

Wang Haisheng, an industrial analyst with Huatai United Securities, said the subsidized 1.71-gigawatt of solar power in China represents a share of 2.5 percent of the global market, while a total capacity between 5 gigawatts and 6 gigawatts will be installed in China this year.

"The golden period for the photovoltaic industry is still yet to come, with great market potential to be explored," said Xiao Han, a renewable energy researcher with CIConsulting, a leading industry research institution in China.

Xiao said there are currently good merger and acquisition opportunities as the entire photovoltaic industry is struggling through hard times.

Currently, the number of Chinese photovoltaic enterprises is estimated at about 500, and about one-third of the total have suspended production due to overcapacity.

According to the China Renewable Energy Society, the production capacity of the Chinese photovoltaic industry reached 40 gigawatts last year but manufactured only 21 gigawatts, leaving many solar panel makers to grapple with losses.

"To those players with strength, now is a perfect moment to invest in the photovoltaic industry," Xiao said.