Chinese solar panel manufacturers are building or planning new production facilities that will add combined annual output capacity equivalent to 340 nuclear reactors, buoyed by strong global demand and new mass-production technology.
“We’ll double our shipments every year,” said Tang Jun, president of Changzhou EGing Photovoltaic Technology. Last year, the midsized player delivered 2.6 gigawatts’ worth of solar panels, with the figure expected to rise to 5 GW this year and 10 GW in 2023.
One gigawatt is the power output of a typical reactor, so from next year its solar cell deliveries would be equivalent to EGing installing 10 nuclear facilities each year.
Solar cell manufacturing is driven by capacity. As bigger production volumes drive down the cost per unit, all player pursue economies of scale.
There is also a technological factor. Up until last year, so-called p-type cells were the mainstream due to their superior cost competitiveness.
But n-type cells, which generate electricity more efficiently than p-types, are being mass produced at a lower cost this year. Anticipating that clients will switch to n-types, solar panel makers are ramping up capital investments to stay ahead of the curve.
Longi Green Energy Technology, the world’s biggest solar panel manufacturer, is building new plants in four locations at a cost topping 10 billion yuan (USD1.46 billion). Trina Solar, which is already building plants in Jiangsu province and elsewhere, has started constructing one in Qinghai province. The plant will produce 10 GW of solar panels and cells each year once construction is completed by the end of 2025.
JA Solar Technology, the third-largest player in the industry, is spending over 17 billion yuan on production facilities in Anhui province, Vietnam and other places.
Altogether, China’s solar cell industry is either planning or has started construction on 340 GW worth of additional capacity as of June, according to an analysis by Great Wall Glory Securities. The data covers forthcoming facilities that use production processes for n-type cells.
Out of China’s power-generation capacity totaling 2,380 GW last year, 307 GW came from solar, according to the China Electric Power Planning & Engineering Institute, a state-backed think tank. If all the solar panel plants in the pipeline are finished, new output would easily overtake 2021’s solar power output each year.
Solar power is enjoying trail winds. The sector is on track to produce 33% of the world’s electricity by mid-century, according to the International Energy Agency, putting it second only behind wind power’s 35%.
Globally, newly installed solar power capacity will surpass 300 GW in 2025, according to the China Photovoltaic Industry Association, with China accounting for over 30%. The sharp rise in demand at home and abroad will be a huge boon to the country’s manufacturers, which already account for more than 80% of worldwide production.
The market expansion is pushing startups into the sector. Cando-solar Photoelectric Technology, which launched last year, developed a solar module that reduces unit production costs by 0.2 yuan per watt produced. Cando Solar has raised funds from multiple backers, including an angel investor.
“We plan to soon build a 1-gigawatt mass production line,” said Chairman and CEO Huang Qiang.
The aggressive investment race is expected to drive down global prices for solar panels by increasing supply. The downward pressure on prices has been a source of friction between the US and China, potentially helping President Xi Jinping politically.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump imposed safeguard tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels in 2018 and President Joe Biden extended the measures in February. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed the Inflation Reduction Act, a spending bill that would accelerate the transition to clean energy by encouraging investments in the US.
China’s share of solar panels imports to the US was virtually zero last year. However, some Chinese solar cells do reach US shores by way of Southeast Asia, critics say. This means the US solar power industry is not entirely immune to China’s investment blitz.
At the same time, Chinese enterprises are not on solid footing. For one, it is difficult to differentiate solar cells based on performance, meaning the products are poised to become commodities.
Solar cells are also subject to rapid cycles of technological innovation. Suntech Power became the first Chinese company to take the global lead in 2010, only to go bankrupt in 2013. Another Chinese maker, Yingli Green Energy, took the top spot in 2012, then saw a financial crunch in 2014.
Despite the promising demand for solar, the fierce investment race is leaving manufacturers financially vulnerable. Six out of 11 solar panel makers listed on the mainland suffered net losses last year, according to Chinese analytics firm Wind. The focus on scale instead of profitability may end up forcing out a number of enterprises and redrawing the industrial landscape.
This article first appeared on Nikkei Asia. It has been republished here as part of 36Kr’s ongoing partnership with Nikkei.