Solar power’s rare year of rising costs may get worse thanks to China’s power crisis.
The price of silicon, used to make the material that comprises solar panels, has surged about 300 percent since the start of August after a top-producing province ordered production be slashed amid a power crunch. China dominates global solar production, with its coal generators powering many of the factories that make clean energy equipment.
The move could further fracture the global supply chain that has already been upended by geopolitics, with the US detaining some Chinese imports earlier this year for alleged labor abuses in the nation’s Xinjiang region. It all points to higher prices for solar panels.
“It is yet another excuse for polysilicon makers to increase the price, and the pricing environment for solar modules is very nervous at the moment,” solar power researcher Jenny Chase said.
Until this summer, silicon had a rather innocuous history. Made by heating common sand and coke in a furnace, prices ranged between US$1 and US$2.50 per kilogram from 2003 until August. That is when Yunnan Province, one of the top production hubs, announced that as part of its efforts to meet energy targets, production of the metal from last month to December would be cut by 90 percent from August levels.
Silicon is purchased by companies that use caustic chemicals and intense heat to purify it into polysilicon, an ultra-conductive material that helps convert sunlight into electricity in photovoltaic panels.
The price of solar-grade polysilicon jumped 13 percent to US$32.62 a kilogram on Wednesday, the highest since 2011. The material is up more than 400 percent since the start of June last year as soaring solar demand pushed processing plants to capacity.
The impact on solar panels should be smaller. Daiwa Capital Markets analyst Dennis Ip said that panels would rise from from 1.8 yuan (US$0.28) per watt to as much as 2 yuan, bringing them back to mid-2019 prices. Regardless, that could be enough to delay some solar projects as developers wait for prices to fall.
“Solar installations this year are expected to be lower than expectations,” Ip said.
This time was supposed to be different. The memorychip sector, famous for its boom-and-bust cycles, had changed its ways. A combination of more disciplined management and new markets for its products — including 5G technology and cloud services — would ensure that companies delivered more predictable earnings. Yet, less than a year after memory companies made such pronouncements, the US$160 billion industry is suffering one of its worst routs ever. There is a glut of the chips sitting in warehouses, customers are cutting orders and product prices have plunged. “The chip industry thought that suppliers were going to have better control,” said
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