China solar cell leader sees heated market via ’12 feed-in tariff debut

The Japanese unit of Chinese solar panel maker Suntech Power Holdings Co., backed by its competitive edge in Japan’s highly potential solar panel market, is looking to more than double its sales next year after suffering unexpected supply disruptions this year.

News photo
Place in the sun: Yutaka Yamamoto, president of Suntech Power Japan Corp., stands in front of the firm’s solar cell exhibit at Tokyo Big Sight in March. YOSHIAKI MIURA

The world’s largest solar module maker has also set its sights on a double-digit market share in 2012. Its share stood at 5 percent last year, fifth from the top.

The bullish outlook comes from the rising demand for renewable energy amid the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Also, the government’s planned launch of a feed-in tariff next July is likely to lure more global companies to Japan’s burgeoning solar power generation business.

“I expect sales to double, at least, next year,” Yutaka Yamamoto, president of Suntech Power Japan Corp., said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“People started to feel the risk of nuclear energy and that electricity is no longer limitless. They are becoming certain that natural energy will be the center of future energy sources, and this view is supporting demand,” he said.

Indeed, the number of inquiries from corporate customers through the Suntech Power website and by telephone has jumped since the feed-in tariff bill cleared the Diet in August. Such inquiries were almost nonexistent in the past two years, he said.

Suntech Power’s recent rapid growth makes for a stark contrast with the performance of late of Japanese makers.

The rapid growth of the German market helped Q-Cells SE of Germany overtake Japan’s Sharp Corp. as the world’s top solar panel maker in 2007. Sharp had enjoyed the top market share for seven consecutive years starting in 2000. The solar panel market had been dominated by Japanese makers Sharp, Kyocera Corp., Sanyo Electric Corp. and Mitsubishi Electric Corp.

Suntech Power emerged in the last five years and was ranked by Photon International magazine as the No. 1 solar module maker for 2010.

The company was founded by solar scientist Zhengrong Shi in 2001 in Wuxi, China, and entered the Japanese market with a full buyout of the solar cell maker MSK in 2008. By acquiring the firm, Suntech Power gained the knowhow of doing business in Japan, where the solar power industry is somewhat conservative, Yamamoto said.

The president said he needed to lower his initial outlook when the company faced unexpected trouble in March. The earthquake and tsunami hit makers of solar power system components, such as cables and central processing units, in the Tohoku region and disrupted the supply chain.

“Our sales were heavily affected from March to May, so I expect this year’s sales will grow 1.5 times from last year, against the earlier forecast that it would double this year,” he said.

According to Yamamoto, the Suntech group has an advantage thanks to its global credibility and the guarantee that its solar panels for housing will last 25 years.

Although competition is expected to become even harder next year when the feed-in-tariffs kick in and many other overseas makers join the Japanese market, Suntech Power’s industrial-use solar panels are price competitive, which can curb operators’ initial investment costs, he said.

The Japan Times

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