Brainstorm Green

Don't fear free trade in solar

October 21, 2011: 8:00 AM ET

Solyndra fallout and fear-mongering have brought the U.S. to the brink of a trade conflict with China, which could threaten jobs in the fastest-growing industry in the U.S.

By Andrew Beebe, chief commercial officer of Suntech

Moody sun burst hovering over a trough at Kram...

FORTUNE -- The last six months have been tough for solar panel manufacturers. While Solyndra has received most of the headlines, more than 50 China-based photovoltaic manufacturers have also closed shop. Rapidly declining prices have squeezed all of our balance sheets. Amidst the competition, Solyndraphobia and fear-mongering have brought the U.S. to the brink of a misguided solar trade conflict against China, which could threaten the livelihood of the global solar ecosystem, particularly solar jobs in the U.S.

The U.S. is net exporter of solar products to China by hundreds of millions of dollars, and to the world by $2 billion (see U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) report). Suntech (STP), too, is a net consumer of solar products in the U.S. – we've purchased more solar products in U.S. dollars than we've sold. Many of our major suppliers are U.S.-based companies and solar industry leaders, such as Hemlock, MEMC, DuPont (DD) and Applied Materials (AMAT). At the same time, Suntech just invested about $10 million in a module manufacturing facility in Goodyear, Arizona, which now employs more than 100 professionals working around-the-clock. A trade war would put all of that at risk.

Still, some U.S. politicians and solar industry representatives want to end free trade in the global solar industry. They fear competition. They don't care that the solar industry is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S., and now employs more than 100,000 Americans. They don't care that the solar industry is expected to add 24,000 jobs over the next 12 months alone, amidst anemic macroeconomic conditions. They don't care that we're on the verge of a revolution that will change the way the world produces and consumes energy.

I do care. It's time to get back to basics and think about what matters. Affordable solar electricity remains a damn good idea – for the economy and for a sustainable future.

As painful as it's been, competition is the lifeblood of any growing industry, and has driven down the price of solar electricity to parity – or comparative pricing – against many traditional forms of energy generation. Some analysts said that the price of solar electricity would fall below $0.15 per kWh by 2020, but it's already happened – a decade early. A solar project bid today for $0.15 per kWh in the Southwest would be laughed out the door because that price is already too high.

Competition is relentless in driving efficiency. In 2003, I started my first solar company in California, with $50 million in venture capital. We set out to design a component that would increase the energy harvest of expensive crystalline silicon solar panels. It showed some initial promise. However, like Solyndra and other ambitious solar start-ups, the entire business model was predicated on a world where silicon cost $300 per kilogram and the best cells available worked at about 15% efficiency. At the same time there were companies competing with one another to drive down the cost of silicon, the primary and most expensive ingredient in most solar cells. As a result of this competition and innovation, silicon prices dropped and my company failed.

Looking back on my start-up, we spawned a number of other very successful solar companies and entrepreneurs. One of those spin-offs was acquired by Suntech, where I now work. The solar industry is better today because of this fierce competition and drop in silicon prices. That's the way of the world. It's not a global conspiracy; it's a global marketplace of ideas. It's Darwinism working for humanity.

We knew that reaching grid parity would not be easy and that not all companies, even storied ones such as Solyndra or my own start-up, would survive. But make no mistake: affordable solar electricity has arrived. That is what's fueling unprecedented industry growth, particularly in the United States, and we're only beginning to scratch the surface of what's possible. A trade war would end free trade in the global solar industry. That's the only competition where we all lose.

Andrew Beebe is the chief commercial officer of Suntech, the world's largest producer of solar panels.

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