The heroes, villains, victims and fools of solar in 2013

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Christmas is many things to many people. Noel, Yule, The Season of Goodwill and if you’re here in the UK, it is also Pantomime Season.

For the uninitiated, a panto is basically a deliberately over the top performance of a classic fairytale with lots of audience participation, bawdy humour, gaudy costumes and a cast of B- and C-list celebrities filling in for actual actors.

A classic panto will include several essential characters, so if the high drama of the solar industry were a presented in pantomime format, who would play each role based on their performance in 2013?

The Villain

In the absence of a hook-handed pirate or a witch armed with sedative-laced fruit, the solar industry’s villain through 2013 has been retrospective policy changes.

The Spanish government went the furthest however, so it alone is cast as our anti-hero. It has proposed changes that limit the profits of utility scale projects to around 5-5.5% after tax, less than the cost of borrowing, dealing a hammer blow to the industry.

This move was paired with an above market price for self-consumed solar electricity and hefty fines for those who flout it.

Effectively, both small- and large-scale solar would be rendered uneconomic. The proposals are being challenged in the country’s national constitutional court by the local government of Murcia.

The most iconic line of any panto is an audience-led cry of “he’s behind you” to warn of the presence of the villain. In the Spanish solar industry’s case, the government is anywhere but behind it.

Hero

Where there is a villain there is, of course, a hero. Those directly fighting our nominated villain in the Spanish courts and the campaigners that protested against their “criminalisation” in prison-issue striped jumpsuits outside a jail on Barcelona deserve an honourable mention.

In the US two heroes formed an unlikely partnership to take on anti-solar policies being pushed heavily by utilities. Environmental groups and grass roots Republicans from the Tea Party found themselves working together in 2013 to defend net metering, which the utility firms claimed places an unfair burden on non-solar homes that had to pay larger grid fees.

Our unlikely allies, The Green Tea Party, pointed out that solar homes also use the grid less by consuming power locally. Apart from a modest charge to be applied in Arizona (about US$5 a month, well down on the US$50 to US$100 state utility APS had been looking for) the campaigners did well to defend net metering. The programme has been expanded in California but the circus is likely to come to more state utility commissions next year.

Damsel in distress

While the gender stereotyping encapsulated in this term leaves a lot to be desired, the sentiment remains the same. Heroes need someone, male or female, to rescue.

In 2013, one of the solar industry’s grand old dames Suntech, went right to the wire. It had been the belle of the ball in the Chinese solar industry but struggled to hold it together through a very trying time for the industry.

Enter Shunfeng. The wafer manufacturer has moved downstream into PV project development and explained in a recent interview with PV Tech why Suntech modules have a bright future as part of the Shunfeng family.

The hapless fool

No pantomime is complete without a hapless fool, a nearly-man who never gets the girl but is also at hand to help narrate the story from the fringes and pull all the pieces together, even if they ultimately irrelevant to the plot and its outcome.

With that in mind, there was only one clear candidate. The European Commission steered the trade talks with China, set the deadlines, published the official statements and set the rules under which the dispute played out.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, the EU’s negotiating is starting to look like about as good a deal as Russia selling natural resources-laden Alaska to the US for two cents an acre.

The agreement provides China with a 2GW quota for solar cells, double what they imported before the deal, and a 7GW quota of modules with a fixed minimum price of €0.56 per Watt (about what they were charging for them at the time). All in all the deal looks slightly better for the Chinese.

It’s no wonder the countries largest manufacturers, who are likely to secure generous chunks of that quota, have been falling over themselves (classic panto slapstick) to say how keen they are to comply with the undertaking.
 

Shunfeng made Suntech an offer it couldn't refuse in 2013. Source: Flickr/Smoobs.
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