Are China Worries, Oil Prices a Threat to Renewables?

The Chinese economy has been struggling and its stock market has sold off dramatically in recent months. As the world's biggest producer of solar panels is now contending with lower growth forecasts (below 7% for 2015), decreasing exports along with industry overcapacity as well as the ongoing decline in the stock market, its solar industry may also be at risk.

Beyond the China factor, the sector as a whole -- and solar stocks in particular -- have taken a beating ever since oil prices began to tumble last June. This weakness has persisted this year as well. The decline in oil prices has made renewable energy stocks unattractive, sparing neither U.S. nor Chinese solar companies.

While the solar energy sector's long-term potential is undeniable, the industry is faced with a number of near-term challenges that will likely keep these stocks under pressure. That said, the demand for solar energy is strengthening at a rapid clip and analysts see no fundamental correlation between the oil plunge and solar share losses.

It is important to note that in 2014 only 1% of U.S. electricity was oil-generated. Renewable sources of energy accounted for about 10% of total U.S. energy consumption and 13% of electricity generation last year. Hence, the recent losses suffered by some of the fundamentally strong solar stocks can be good buying opportunities for investors with my longer time horizons. The U.S. solar market continues to grow as it registered 30% year-over-year growth in 2014, per the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Apart from the crumbling oil price scenario, other weaknesses that can impact the renewable industry at large are discussed below.

China Factor: China's solar industry is not immune to the current downturn in the economy. The country's economic situation has sparked apprehensions that the government could shift asset resources away from investment in renewable energy in order to fuel its stock market. One of the most prominent effects of the economic slowdown in China has been relatively weak demand for electricity.

Earlier this year, the Chinese National Energy Administration set a goal for 17.8 gigawatts ("GW") of newly installed solar capacity this year. However, post first-half 2015, the nation has added only about 7.7 GW of solar PV.

Per the United Nations Environment Program, China exhausted a record $83.3 billion in green energy subsidies in 2014, up 39% from 2013. A major portion of this is likely targeted at the solar market. Now, as the economy slips into a slower growth phase, the Chinese government could pull its strings on renewable subsidies.

Trina Solar Ltd. ( TSL ), the largest Chinese manufacturer, derives about two-thirds of its revenue growth from China. In the last three months, its share price dropped over 29% while Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. Ltd. ( YGE ) saw its shares plummet about 39.3%. With declining demand for electricity in China, these players might feel a further pressure on their top line.

High Cost Burden: Since the recession began in 2008, the solar industry has experienced both ups and downs, but the main trend has been a sharp fall in the prices of solar panels due to a supply glut. This has forced many solar firms to go bankrupt leaving only low-cost producers, which are mostly the Chinese solar manufacturers.

The solar stocks were beaten badly around mid-May 2015 following a brutal plunge in the highflying Chinese thin-film solar manufacturer, Hanergy Thin Film Power Group. The company lost nearly half of its market capitalization in a day's trading in May. Trading in the company has been suspended indefinitely ever since by Hong Kong's Securities and Futures Commission.

The rout was followed by sluggish trading by Yingli Green Energy on looming bankruptcy concerns. Shares collapsed as much as 70% in the last three months and it recently received a notice from the NYSE about its non-compliance with the stock exchange's price criteria for continued listing standard.

Yingli Solar has been struggling to survive amid a pile of debt. Importantly, the company has failed to generate profits since 2011. In this scenario, the company may find it difficult, if not impossible, to pay down its outstanding debt, thereby resulting in cross-defaults, putting it at liquidation risk. The company was once the leading module manufacturer in the world between 2012 and 2013.

Anti-Dumping Duties: The move from the U.S. Department of Commerce ("DOC") to impose new import duties on solar panels and other related products from China and Taiwan could escalate the U.S.-China trade conflict that has already been simmering since 2012.

The decision addresses one of the main charges in a petition brought by SolarWorld Industries America, a German solar manufacturer with major operations in the U.S. A complaint lodged by SolarWorld brought to the fore a loophole that the Chinese solar product makers were exploiting to evade duties imposed by the Department of Justice in 2012.

After suffering from a two-year slump given the global supply glut, the solar industry as a whole is now largely recovering. Hence, the additional tariffs will unfortunately put a hold on the entire U.S. solar industry, as prices of solar power will probably move north given the global dominance of China in the solar panel manufacturing space.

The Commerce Department in Dec 2014 set anti-dumping duties at about 52% on most module imports from China and at 19.5% on most imports of Taiwanese cells. It has also slapped 39% anti-subsidy tariffs on most China-made panels.

The recent solar boom, in fact, has been due in large part to a significant drop in solar module cost. Boosting module costs − through a tariff on Chinese panels or encouraging more costly domestic panels − will likely reduce installations.

Subsidy Rollback: Budgetary constraints have caused the prime global solar markets like Germany, U.S., Italy, Australia, U.K. and Taiwan to roll back a portion of their grants. Earlier, solar players had witnessed a sharp rise in sales in these countries, mainly fueled by the rush to complete projects ahead of subsidy rollbacks.

Under German regulations, the Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs) are adjusted monthly depending on new capacity and additional factors. Germany is expected to cap subsidy payments after generation capacity reaches a certain target. Germany is consistently evaluating changes to the German Renewable Energy Law, or the EEG.

In Aug 2015, the U.K. government's Department of Energy and Climate Change released a consultation on proposed changes to its FiT scheme and a FiT expenditure cap of between GBP 75 million and GBP 100 million by 2018/2019. There will be an 87% reduction in support for domestic solar and an up to 82% cut in FiTs for commercial rooftops from as early as Jan 2016.

Japan was one of the brightest solar energy markets owing to the attractive FiTs launched in Jul 2012. However, solar module shipments to Japan dropped 40.5% sequentially in the April-June period this year, per a report by the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association. The decline followed a reduction to the FiT for solar systems from Apr 1, 2015, i.e., the start of Japan's new fiscal year. This marked the first instance of lower solar shipments to the domestic market since the FiT was launched in 2012.

Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry confirmed in Mar 2015 its intention of cutting the country's solar FiT by as much as 16% by Jul 2015. On Jul 1, 2015, the final cut put in place a FiT rate of ¥27 per kWh that will remain for 20 years for all approved projects.

Again, Chinese PV manufacturers are suffering from delays in subsidy payments. If governmental incentives for solar power keep on coming much later than expected, it would put off many sector investors and consequently hurt the industry. Trina Solar's finance head Teresa Tan expressed concerns that apart from hurting the cash flows of renewable energy firms in China, delayed China FiT payments could also cause international investors to lose interest in the market.

New Emerging Technologies: The alternative energy industry remains an emerging sector with a steady focus on the lowest-cost technology. This may prove disastrous for existing companies riding the solar boom should a cheaper alternative emerge. The industry also has to deal with cost-competitiveness from traditional means of electricity generation.


Globally, China leads the world in total electricity generation from renewable sources, helped by its increased allegiance in recent times to the alternative path. It is followed closely by the U.S., Brazil and Canada.

All leading solar cell manufacturers are looking for opportunities in the emerging markets. These markets primarily comprise the Asia-Pacific region with China, India and Japan being the key destination for the global solar giants. The long-term outlook on the whole looks bright. This is especially true as global warming and high fuel emission issues have proven how inevitable clean energy sources will be for the future.

However, the global economic turmoil, China's slowdown and the consequent subsidy rollback in the prime global solar markets are appearing to be a major headwind for the renewable energy industry on the whole. Again, if we are to expand renewable manufacturing infrastructure worldwide to fight the climate crisis, the U.S. as well as the Chinese manufacturers should try to settle their dispute before the industry is hurt at large. Measures to reduce the inflow of Chinese solar panels may hamper the battle against climate change.

Finally, the drop in oil prices and varying market conditions have raised questions as to how the market will re-balance. This involves implications for markets, policies, competitiveness, investment and the fuel mix if lower oil prices persist.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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