With high-performance cells, China takes aim at high-end solar market

BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – China, blighted by pollution and long known for churning out cheap manufactured goods, is looking to dominate the high-end of a major growth market: solar power.

Under a new program, China is pushing the industry to mass market high-performance solar cells so far used mainly in high-tech products like satellites.

Making these cells more affordable will likely further boost a sector that has already disrupted global electricity generation.

It will also put pressure on international solar cell makers such as Canadian Solar (CSIQ.O), REC Solar (RCLRF.PK), Sharp (6753.T) and Sunpower (SPWR.O) which compete with Chinese leaders including LONGi Green Energy Technology (601012.SS), Trina Solar (TSLy.D) and JA Solar Holdings (JASO.O).

Under its 2017 “Top Runner Program”, China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) plans to add 8-10 gigawatt (GW) of solar capacity to its existing 80 GW.

“This shift … could have far-reaching implications for the global solar industry, especially vaulting China into the top ranks of countries pursuing solar R&D,” Stanford University said in its 2017 report on the solar industry.

For a graphic on world vs China solar power capacity click reut.rs/2eYTF9H

MULTI OUT, MONO IN

World solar power generation capacity has ballooned to around 300 GW from just 1 GW in 2000, according to International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) data – and is set to double again by 2020.

That growth has largely relied on multi-crystalline silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells – sometimes called polycrystalline – in which solar units consist of multiple silicon crystallines.

These have been cheaper to produce than the more efficient mono-crystalline cells, which are made from single crystalline units.

The price of multi-crystalline cells has dropped to well below 50 cents per watt from $80 in 1980.

But prices are now converging as China scales up production of mono-crystalline cells.

Energy Trend, a consultancy, says the average price of a Chinese high-efficiency, multi-crystalline cell is now $0.225 per watt, compared to just $0.319 for high-efficiency, mono-crystalline cells.

“With poly-silicon products, we have seen the (development) ceiling. Now, we are ramping up investment of mono-solar,” said Xie Tian, director of quality management at LONGi Green Energy Technology. “Mono-crystalline can take more than 50 percent of the market,” he said, up from around a fifth today.

Analysts say demand for…

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