China’s newest solar-energy manufacturers include a dairy farmer and a toy maker.
The new entrants are examples of a green-energy spending binge in China that is fueling the country’s rapid build-out of renewable energy while also creating a glut of solar components that is rippling through the industry and stymying attempts to build such manufacturing elsewhere, particularly in Europe.
Since the start of the year, prices for Chinese polysilicon, the building block of solar panels, are down 50% and panels down 40%, according to data tracker OPIS, which is owned by Dow Jones.
Inside China, some companies fear a green bubble is about to pop.
China’s state-guided economy spent nearly $80 billion on clean-energy manufacturing last year, around 90% of all such investment worldwide, BloombergNEF estimates. The country’s annual spending on green energy overall has increased by more than $180 billion a year since 2019, the International Energy Agency says.
The rush of funding has attracted an unusual array of companies to the bustling business.
Last summer, Chinese dairy giant
unveiled plans for three new projects. There was a farm with 10,000 milk cows, a dairy processing plant and a $1.5 billion factory to make solar cells and panels.
“The solar industry is improving over the long term, and the market potential is huge,” Royal Group wrote in a document outlining the project last year. More recently, Royal Group said it wants to create synergies between its core agricultural business and photovoltaics, “and promote solar technology to empower dairy owners to reduce costs and increase efficiency,” the company said in a response to The Wall Street Journal.
The milk manufacturer wasn’t alone in jumping on China’s solar bandwagon in the past two years. Other newbies include a jewelry chain, a producer of pollution-control equipment and a pharmaceutical company.
The newcomers are helping an ambitious wind and solar push in China—this year alone the country is set to install roughly as much solar as the U.S. has in total, Rystad Energy estimates.
Meanwhile, Chinese exports of everything from batteries and electric vehicles to solar panels and wind turbines have surged, raising hackles in places such as Europe and the U.S., which are trying to grow their own domestic clean-energy manufacturing.
In solar, the investment is an important reason for the huge oversupply of components, and falling prices that are pummeling profits at manufacturers around the world. Many established Chinese solar companies are warning that the fallout could be grim, with losses or bankruptcies looming.
Many Chinese manufacturers have been trying to unload inventory at bargain prices in Europe, one of the few big solar markets without tariffs or other barriers to panel imports. While European solar developers are delighted, the region’s already hard-pressed manufacturers are crying foul.
Some European producers were already struggling with homegrown challenges such as slow permitting, a lack of skilled labor and high energy costs, making it difficult to compete with Chinese counterparts.
The oversupply was exacerbated by barriers to imports in India and the U.S., which threw off Chinese manufacturers’ forecasts and left their panels languishing in ports and warehouses. The U.S. proved particularly unpredictable with the threatened imposition of antidumping duties and the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which ended up preventing panels made with Chinese polysilicon from entering the country.
The Chinese solar-manufacturing industry has gone through booms and busts before and had its share of odd new entrants. Tongwei Solar began as a fish-feed supplier that acquired a solar-panel maker during the downturn of 2013 to complement its aquaculture business with solar parks. Tongwei is now the largest polysilicon maker in the world.
This time, more than 70 listed companies—ranging from fashion, chemicals and real estate to electrical appliances—have entered the solar sector in 2022, according to data intelligence company InfoLink.
In February, Zhejiang Ming Jewelry, which runs 1,000 gold jewelry stores in China, announced plans to invest $1.5 billion to build a solar-cell factory. Last August, toy maker Mubang High-Tech announced a joint venture with the local government for a $660 million solar-cell production base.
Supply-chain disruptions from the pandemic squeezed inventories and pushed up prices in previous years. European solar buyers ordered large amounts of panels as they became available, while many Chinese manufacturers overestimated demand, said Matthias Taft, chief executive of BayWa r.e., Europe’s biggest solar distributor.
“We and others ordered massively” during the second half of 2022, he said.
The recent drop in solar prices meant Chinese panels are selling for around half of manufacturing cost for members of Europe’s solar-manufacturing industry association, said Johan Lindahl, the group’s secretary-general. Around 40% of the panels manufactured this year by members who responded to the association’s survey were languishing in inventory.