China’s Dramatic Solar Shift Could Take Sting Out of Trump's Panel Tariffs

Analysts expect solar panel costs to drop by a third. That could be a lifeline for U.S. developers, who sidelined billions of dollars in projects over the tariffs.

China announced it was scaling back some of its solar subsidies. Analysts expect the policies to reduce the amount of solar installed in China, but increase its solar panel sales globally, lowering prices. Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The Chinese government has announced it will halt or shrink many of its solar subsidies. Analysts expect that to reduce solar capacity growth in China this year while significantly increasing Chinese solar panel sales to the global market. Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The American solar market may be about to get boost from an unexpected source: Energy analysts say the Chinese government's decision to dramatically cut its solar power subsidies will create a glut of solar panels and send their prices tumbling worldwide.

It comes at a crucial time for American solar installers. Falling prices could take the sting out of President Trump's solar panel tariffs, which have raised costs in the United States and led to billions of dollars in cancelled and frozen U.S. investments.

"It's changing the tone from negative to positive for the U.S.," said Xiaoting Wang, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).

Last week, the Chinese government announced it would halt approvals of new subsidized utility-scale solar plants, limit the amount of smaller-scale distributed generation installed and shrink the subsidies it provides to solar generators. All told, these policies are expected to cut the amount of solar capacity installed this year in China by 30 to 40 percent, according to Wood Mackenzie and BNEF.

Because China leads the world in new solar installations, the steep drop in demand will ripple across the global market.

BNEF expects prices of some panels to fall 34 percent as result. That will bring down installation costs for new solar projects, particularly large, utility-scale systems, and spur new investment in other countries, though BNEF said that new investment is unlikely to make up for the drop in China.

Lower Prices Could Counteract the Tariffs

Morgan Lyons, a spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said it's too soon to know what the effects on the U.S. market will be, but that it will likely lead to lower costs.

The drop could also counteract the impact of new tariffs the Trump administration imposed on imported solar panels. The tariffs, which started this year at 30 percent and will decline over the next three years, gave a boost to domestic manufacturers of solar panels, who faced competition from cheap imports from China and other countries. One of those manufacturers, First Solar Inc., saw its stock price fall sharply after China's announcement because it's now expected to face lower-cost competition once again.

But the tariffs have the opposite effect on the solar installation sector, which employs far more people than manufacturing.

U.S. solar developers have canceled or frozen more than $2.5 billion in investments, Reuters reported Thursday. A report by GTM Research said the tariffs would cut solar installations by 11 percent over five years, or about 7.6 gigawatts less new capacity than previously forecast.

Why Did China Cut Its Solar Incentives?

While the announcement by China sent a shock through the solar industry, it wasn't entirely surprising, according to BNEF.

The costs of the subsidies the government provides to the renewable energy industry have been growing at an unsustainable rate, analysts said. The nation's solar producers have also had to curtail their actual output because they've grown faster than the grid's capacity. The cut in subsidies will address both of those problems by slowing growth, Frank Yu, an analyst with Wood Mackenzie in Beijing, said in a research note.

Wind energy has faced similar issues in China, and officials have discussed cutting subsidies for that industry as well.

The new policies may also spur innovation and competition, making the industry more efficient. The Chinese government said it would require utility-scale solar projects to sell their electricity through competitive auctions, a move that will likely lead to lower prices. All of this together, Yu said, will speed the adoption of solar power outside China, particularly in Southeast Asia, which may attract more investment from China and benefit from lower prices.

This week, Chinese solar firms sent a letter to their government urging it to delay the new policies, saying they faced huge debts and needed a few more years of subsidies to be more competitive.

Turmoil First, then Grid Parity

If the policies remain as announced, the global market will face a period of turmoil first as the effects spread throughout the global supply chain. Eventually, though, Yu said they'll help solar compete with conventional power sources without the need of government support.

Already, some types of utility-scale solar projects are competitive with even the most efficient natural gas power plants.

In March, BNEF released a report saying that costs for solar, wind and batteries were falling fast enough that they're putting pressure on fossil fuels globally. In particular, it said lower battery costs mean that wind and solar facilities can now store power relatively cheaply and release it when needed.

"Some existing coal and gas power stations, with sunk capital costs, will continue to have a role for many years," the report said. "But the economic case for building new coal and gas capacity is crumbling, as batteries start to encroach on the flexibility and peaking revenues enjoyed by fossil fuel plants."

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