Solar power is probably the most promising source of renewable energy – and China is making it affordable. While worldwide solar power capacity is still limited, the industry has grown with incredible speed in the last decade.
In this week’s article, we look at the basic technical specifications of solar photovoltaic panels and on what factors you shall select a Chinese solar panel manufacturer. We also introduce you to regulations, anti-dumping duties in major markets and trade shows covering solar products.
Chinese manufacturers are accustomed to manufacture products according to the buyer specifications. However, the solar industry is a bit different in the sense that product customization is generally not necessary. Solar panel suppliers manufacture products according to a pre-determined set of product specifications.
That being said, not all suppliers manufacture solar panels of the same quality. Below follows a list of the most basic product specifications you need to keep track of:
- On-grid or off-grid
- Lifespan (20 – 25 years)
- Material (Polycrystalline or Monocrystalline)
- Salt protection (for installations in coastal areas)
- Front (Specify bus bars and coating)
- Back (Specify bus bars and back material)
- Cell efficiency (e.g. 17.2%)
- Number of cells: 60 cells per panel (6 x 10)
- Cell dimensions
- Solar panel dimensions
- Solar panel weight
- Nominal power
- Maximum voltage
- Maximum current
- Operating temperature range
- Maximum load capacity
- Cable and connector brands / models (stand alone components shall also be compliant with product safety regulations)
- Cable length
- Output tolerance
- Frame material
- Fill factor
The final product specification shall be provided by the supplier. However, if you have specific performance requirements, you may begin by drafting a short list of basic quality specifications and let the supplier suggest a matching product.
Most Chinese manufacturers offer a 25 year warranty guarantee. However, efficiency (input compared to the output) losses are part of the calculation. Many suppliers advertise that their solar panels maintain 90% to 95% output in the first 10 years, and 80% to 85% output during the remaining 15 years. But few, if any, Chinese suppliers can support these claims with historic performance data.
There are two sets of components: panel components such as connectors, trackers and mounting, and power components, including inverters, DC isolation switches and meters.
You need to keep in that stand alone components shall also be compliant with electrical safety regulations in your country or market. While most Chinese solar panel suppliers offer all system components you may need, never take for granted that these components are compliant with the regulations in your country. Many suppliers are unaware that components used in Chinese solar installations aren’t compatible with regulations and standards in other markets.
Solar panel manufacturers in China
China is the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of solar panels. The industry is dominated by a handful of major players. One of them is Yingli Solar, a company you might recognize by now if you’ve been watching the World cup lately (they’re a major sponsor).
However, the solar panel manufacturers that rank in China’s top 10 are not dealing with small to medium sized importers – at least not anymore. But, the industry is much bigger than these companies. On Alibaba alone, there are almost 3000 solar panel suppliers. Among these, the vast majority (around 91%) is located in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong province.
While manufacturing solar panels is not rocket science, it’s far more complicated than assembling wristwatches. When we’re sourcing solar panels for clients, we select suppliers based on the following factors:
1. Quality Management System
A Quality Management System (QMS) is a set of operational procedures, put in place to monitor the quality of a product during the various production stages. In short, this includes checking incoming materials and components from subcontractors, testing functions during the production and final testing before the assembled product is shipped. The purpose is to detect quality issues, while there still time to fix them.
There are several established Quality Management Systems in use today, the most common being ISO9001. When it comes to most consumer products, I don’t consider a QMS to be a great advantage, but not critical. However, electrical products are very different. You can’t “see” or “feel” electrical quality issues. If the production is not closely monitored, one defective batch IC circuits or chips, from a subcontractor, can ruin the entire production.
2. Compliance with US and European product regulations
Too many American and European importers assume that all Chinese manufacturers are primarily focusing on western markets, and therefore secure compliance with the applicable product regulations in these countries. That couldn’t be more wrong – especially in the solar panel industry.
First of all, China itself is a big market for solar panel. South America, Africa, The Middle East and South East Asia are also major markets in the industry. Some suppliers are geared towards these markets, rather than the United States and the European Union.
That being said, compliance with EU and US product standards is not irrelevant for African, Asian and Latin American importers. A supplier that can show compliance with standards such as CE and RoHS, tend to be more reliable in terms of product quality and management reliability. These are factors that matter to all importers.
3. Company size
First of all, it makes little sense to buy solar products from anything but a manufacturer. Buying solar panels from disorganized traders, selling a little bit of everything, is not a reliable purchasing strategy. The size of suppliers in this industry is “above average”, meaning that there are plenty of fairly big manufacturers to choose from. It’s important.
It’s a fast moving industry. Keeping track of the supply chain and develop new products requires capital and manpower. But that’s not all. From time to time, things go wrong during production. When this happens, the supplier must have enough capital to purchase new components and restart production. That might sound obvious, but many importers truly overestimate the scale of most Chinese manufacturers.
Since the beginning of this decade, the Chinese solar power industry has been caught in crossfire from major economies. Below follows a brief summary of the current situation in the US, EU and India.
In 2012, the US International Trade Commission levied anti-dumping duties on solar panels manufactured in China. Previously, the Anti-Dumping duty didn’t apply to solar panels made with cells manufactured outside of China. However, starting in June 2014, the Anti-Dumping duties also cover such products. The tariffs vary between different manufacturers, ranging from 18.56% to 35.21%.
The EU initiated an investigation in late 2012. In the end, Anti-Dumping duties were not levied on Chinese made solar panels. Instead, the European Union and China agreed to set a minimum price level for solar panels. Therefore European importers need not to worry about Anti-Dumping duties on imported solar panels – at least not yet!
Anti-dumping duties are levied on solar panels imported from China, Malaysia and the United States. The tariffs on Chinese made solar panels range from 100% to 110%.
Solar panel exhibitions in China
Visiting a Trade fair is a cost efficient way to meet industry leading suppliers and compare products and pricing. If you intend to import solar panels from China, then these are the Trade fairs for you:
Canton Fair Phase 1
The Canton Fair is China’s largest trade fair and is located in Guangzhou, Guangdong. It’s held each year in April and October.
- Solar Cells and Modules
- Electrical components: Storage Battery, Controller, Transverter, Recording Instrument, Inverter, Monitor, Bracket System, Tracking System, Installation System, Sun Cable, Measuring Instrument
- Photovoltaic Products, Systems, Raw Materials & Equipment
- Solar-thermal Products, Solar Water Heaters, Heat Pump, Thermal Collectors, Solar Air Conditioners
SNEC PV Power Expo
SNEC is a major conference and supplier exhibition held annually in Shanghai. It’s been on for the last 8 years and the next exhibition is held in May 2015.
Hong Kong Electronics Fair (Spring Edition)
This exhibition is held annually in Hong Kong, by HKTDC (Hong Kong Trade and Development Council). At the HK Electronics Fair, you’ll find suppliers manufacturing and trading various solar products, such as:
- Solar Cells
- Solar Chargers
- Solar Heaters
- Solar Lamps
- Solar PV (Photovoltaic)
- Solar PV Batteries
- Other Solar Products