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German industry woes take the stage at solar trade conference

The mood at Intersolar – the world’s largest solar trade fair – was downbeat from the start: “It has never been this bad,” head of the German Solar Industry Association Carsten Körnig said at the fair’s opening.

Although 2011 saw the most new PV system installations on record, the industry has been under pressure for years. The number of exhibitors at Intersolar (this year held in Munich, Germany) even reflected the trend, falling by 16 percent since 2011.

Once the largest producer of solar panels, Germany is especially suffering, now with only six percent of the global solar power market.

Some industry players blame unfair competition coming out of China. “The Chinese offer their customers a price that’s below cost,” Frank Asbeck, head of SolarWorld, told Deutsche Welle.

“By doing this, the Chinese government forces the good, technologically advanced companies into a dire financial straits so they can ultimately monopolize the market.”

The U.S. charge against these alleged unfair trade practices from the Chinese was led by SolarWorld’s U.S. affiliate, and the German parent company has been calling for similar actions from the EU.

The newly completed Solar Frontier and BELECTRIC thin-film power plant in Germany. Credit: Solar Frontier.

Despite SolarWorld’s advances, according to Greentech Media the German Solar Energy Industry Association will remain neutral in that debate, and other German firms have come out against any trade actions.

Aside from increased competition, Germany has concurrently seen a drop in government support for the industry. “The funding rates have been halved in the last three years,” said Körnig. “No other technological sector has had to reduce its costs as much to keep up as the solar power sector.”

However, on June 14 lawmakers failed to agree on proposed cuts to solar-power subsidies. Fearing negative consequences for domestic solar manufacturers, state leaders from the upper house of parliament oppose any subsidy cuts.

According to Bloomberg, the country’s Environment Minister Peter Altmaier will meet with state leaders this week to discuss the subsidies. Altmaier recently indicated support for a German- or EU-led trade complaint against Chinese solar firms.

Time will show the extent of the suffering for the German solar industry. But even considering the recent optimistic outlooks for the global PV market, some analysts are less positive about prospects for German manufacturers.

“Unfortunately, we only see opportunities in niche markets – highly specialized areas like interesting combinations of solar panels and architecture and integration into buildings,” Wolfgang Hummel from the German Center for Solar Market Research told Deutsche Welle. “But our outlook for the mass market is really poor.”


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