We attended the conference in June with some preconceptions about the Chinese economy. Initially China’s importance in technology stemmed from its role as an important manufacturing base followed by its rise as a huge market with mulitinationals aiming to build competitive positions to maximize their share of the Chinese market. Our surprise was the discovery of a surprising number of entrepreuneurs actually experimenting with locally developed technologies all along the solar and wind-value chains – some real reinventions, some far-fetched, but others potentially significant breakthroughs.
Many exhibitors were well-established Chinese companies, such as Longyuan, LDK, GS Solar. They seemed to be placing a much greater emphasis on ‘service’ to win business. Take the inverter company Sungrow. They made a point of telling us of their afterservice team based in Germany and then quickly followed up the next day with a feasibility study, unasked for, of a project development we had mentioned in passing. They even sent us a follow-up study comparing their technology to SMA Solar’s in terms of efficiency and price.
Even more intriguing were the grassroots technology companies such as the “still experimental-stage” CSP equipment company called Central Energy Solartech with its fluent English–speaking CEO, a geophysicist with an MBA, aided by the scientific mirror specialist and the mechanical specialist with no formal training, all recently returned from Andasol in Spain WHERE THEY WERE CHECKING OUT THE SOLAR THERMAL GROUPS. Their aim is to manufacture equipment at a cost that is 50% cheaper than peers and improve mirror efficiency using self-cleaning nano-technology which they are testing at universities. (Unlike Spain there are still no independent company labs in China). They are wedded to CSP rather than PV because the production process is less pollutive and there is potential for major cost-cutting. Central Energy Solartech’s mirrors are thinner (2 vs 4 millimeter-thick for Abengoa’s at Andasol), but just as strong and most important, cheaper because they can be shipped flat and are only bent when mounted. We watched the lens concentrator at work on a relatively bright day for Beijing, directing the mirrors and were informed that the lens concentrator has a much lower tolerance (0.02) than Concentrex (0.1). To date, subsidies in China– which has only one installed 50MW CSP plant in Inner Mongolia– are being dolled out on a province-by-province, case-by-case basis.
We found other solar dish manufacturers aiming to take advantage of the relatively lower cost of aluminium to PV, including a group which has created arrays of aluminium octagonal cone reflectors with PV chips at the center. And one entrepreneur is employing a giant solar oven technique to purify silicon for manufacturing PV cells.
As for wind, the buzz at the conference was utility-scale, off-shore (only 32MW installed to date) which the government aims to develop. However the grid is already inadequate, and a Longyuan representative pointed out that 6,556MW installed but only 5,000MW connected. Among the few foreigners, we met Ian Chivers of Optimised Energy Solutions who is alerting developers to grid problems and offering solutions to state utilities.
In all the foreign attendance was sparce. German wind power component manufacturers were relatively (and understandably) the most numerous (Bachmann, Bekawind, Carlisle, Ziehl, Block, First Hydrolic, Bayer, Reo…). From what we could see, only two French companies made a showing (Axson and Total), one Dutch, one Austrian (Palfinger) and one American (AAVID, long an exporter from China of cooling solutions).
Low foreign participation is hard to reconcile given the importance China is attributing to clean energy in its 12th Five-Year Plan which targets a reduction in carbon emissions by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2020 and among the many ways to get there, an increase in non-fossil fuel primary energy consumption from 8% today to 11.4%. Wind will be a particularly big component (official installed target 150GW by 2020 but possibly reaching 180-200GW). The poor showing is hopefully simply due to poor advertising by organizers.