China gets over 70% of its energy from coal and is consuming the material at such a rapid rate that it may soon need to import the stuff, despite having large reserves of coal deposits. Meanwhile, the Chinese are building up other power sources such as nuclear plants and hydroelectric generators. But they probably won't be online soon enough to head off a projected energy shortage expected to hit 6% by 2010 and more thereafter.
Photovoltaics could help fill this gap, say energy experts. That was the message delivered by a team from SEMI, the overarching organization for semiconductor equipment manufacturers. The organization's Photovoltaic (PV) Group recently issued a report prepared by its China PV Advisory Committee recommending that the Chinese accelerate their adoption of PV-generated electric power.
The situation is ironic because China is the world's second largest solar cell manufacturer. Last year the Chinese manufactured more than 2 GW of solar power capacity, about 30% of the world's supply, with most of it crystalline rather than thin-film. But almost none of Chinese-made cells get installed in China itself. “The fact that they export nearly every solar cell they make subjects their manufacturing supply chain to the risks of varying solar incentives that other countries implement,” says SEMI PV Group executive vice president Dan Martin.
Part of the difficulty in accelerating PV use is that the relative few PV installations in China are off grid and rural, says Martin. “They are generally out in the boondocks where PV is the sole source of power,” he explains. So part of the Group's advice was to put a priority on larger grid-connected PV systems.
Martin characterizes PV manufacturing in China as competitive with those elsewhere. “In cell making they may even be the low-cost producers,” he says. But China imports most of the silicon that goes into its PV cells, and the Chinese lack world-class technology for producing high-purity silicon, Martin says. “They lack technology and equipment because they haven't invested sufficiently in R & D. So one of our recommendations to them was to strengthen their technological competitiveness,” he says.
SEMI hopes its recommendations will get traction among Chinese officials. But there is reason to believe adoption of SEMI's ideas could come quickly. “U.S. energy policy is complex because you have involvement among the 50 states, individual localities, some 3,000 utilities, and of course the federal government. In China, there are far fewer entities whom you need to influence to make policy happen,” says Martin.