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An increasing number of media reports are picking up on the theme of trade wars in the market for solar products.
Take, for example, a recent piece in The New York Times, detailing efforts by the likes of Suntech Power (NYSE: STP ) and Yingli Green Energy (NYSE: YGE ) to try and nip protectionism in the bud by setting up local manufacturing footprints in the United States. In addition, these Chinese companies appear to be taking a page from the Honda Motor (NYSE: HMC ) playbook by joining local trade groups.
It would appear that the Chinese have found a way to sidestep provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that would prohibit procurement of Chinese solar panels. What's been less clear to me is how American or European companies could hope to do the reverse, and penetrate China's nascent domestic market. That country has imposed its own 80% local content requirement for the 10-megawatt Dunhuang plant that Yingli tried to lowball.
Other than Evergreen Solar's (Nasdaq: ESLR ) recent contract manufacturing foray, I haven't seen a lot of Western solar businesses setting up shop in China. Folks like SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA ) (Nasdaq: SPWRB ) have typically been drawn to places like Malaysia instead. Tuesday's announcement by Arizona-based First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR ) may mark a major turning point, however.
The company has hammered out an agreement with the Chinese government to build a 2-gigawatt power plant in Inner Mongolia, with a phased expansion to be completed by 2019. The company says it "will actively review the possibility of module and supplier manufacturing sites in Ordos [City], and other considerations required to support a First Solar investment." So it sounds like the company will accommodate whatever local content requirements are thrown at it. For such a gigantic project (think billions in capital costs), the hoops are no doubt worth jumping through.
In the near term, Chinese solar players need the relatively large American market more than the reverse, so this opening up appears to be a very pragmatic move by the Chinese government.
So do you think this is a one-off gesture, or a sign that the Chinese market is open to sufficiently low-cost foreign solar suppliers? Scroll down and leave a comment below.