Navigant Research Blog

China Cuts Solar Subsidy: Investors in Crisis

— June 14, 2018

Subsidy cuts in China have caught global solar investors by surprise this June.

The National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Finance, and the National Energy Administration announced a cut in the national feed-in tariff by ¥0.05 ($0.008) per kilowatt-hour and a reduction of the same amount in subsidies for power generated by large-scale distributed PV projects. Subsidy reductions will not affect power prices for smaller-scale, community-based solar power projects. The Chinese government justified the move, explaining that solar PV has long been commoditized because of reduction in equipment prices and that scaling back on subsidies will reduce overheating in the sector. The joint announcement indicated that the measures are aimed at “promoting the solar energy sector’s sustainable development, enhancing its development quality, and speeding up reduction of subsidies.”

Many agree that the move is the result of recent trade wars with the US administration. January 2018, President Trump announced a 30% tariff on imported solar equipment that will last for at least the next 4 years. This is believed to be in response to anti-dumping measures and to prevent undercuts by Chinese solar manufacturers in the US market.

Can Subsidy Cuts Lead to Grid Parity?

Financial incentives and subsidies have long been the cornerstone of solar investments. On one hand, it provides much-needed economies of scale. On the other hand, it encourages investments by ensuring that PV electricity cost achieves grid parity. As the energy sector was settling down into , technology investments and grid flexibility meant that solar energy could reach grid parity even without financial incentives.

The Chinese renewable industry is one of the front-runners of clean energy projects across EVs, wind turbines, solar panels, and energy efficient appliances. During the last decade, the Chinese government introduced the Solar Roofs Plan for promoting the application of solar PV building, and reintroduced the Golden Sun Project to give 50% of the total investment subsidies to the grid-connected PV power generation project. Increasing domestic and industrial demand, the adoption of EVs, and rising pollution have created an ever-increasing need for solar projects in China.

Thus, subsidy scale-backs have created an uproar in the Chinese market. On June 4, there was a sell-off in Chinese solar equipment stocks. Shares dropped the 10% daily limit for several firms, including Shanghai-listed LONGi Green Energy Technology, Jiangsu Linyang Energy, and Tongwei, and Shenzhen-listed Sungrow Power Supply.

China Will Remain a Renewables Leader, despite Scale Back

Resilience of renewables has been a topic of discussion across many energy forums, and the solar industry is a front-runner in this. Chinese solar power will continue to strengthen its position as a mainstream energy source across both utility-scale and distributed energy generation. Navigant Research’s recent report, Preparing for New DER-Driven Opportunities in the Chinese C&I Energy Market, explores the changes in the Chinese commercial and industrial electricity market and the opportunities this creates for distributed energy resources stakeholders.

The Chinese solar industry is likely to witness a larger number of mergers and acquisitions over the next year, especially among the smaller market participants. While long-term prospects continue to remain positive, the short-term impact will cause a contraction in the overall positive growth trajectory.


China Seizing Leadership in Global Solar

— February 8, 2018

In November 2017, I wrote about the surging Chinese solar market. On January 2018, China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) confirmed this trend when it announced that 52.8 GW of solar were installed in 2017. To put this into perspective, this is more than the cumulative solar installed capacity in the US at the end of 2017. At the same time, PV became the technology of choice for the country—at least on installed capacity terms—as in the same period, China only installed 45.78 GW of conventional generation.

China As an Example for Solar Development

With a record year in 2017, China’s cumulative solar capacity reached 130.3 GW, or around 7.3% of the country’s national power generation capacity—3% of it coming from capacity installed in 2017. While this is still far from the levels of conventional generation, it does show the potential of PV to scale quickly and have an effect on a country’s electricity system. After all, China has the largest generating fleet in the world, with close to 1,800 GW of capacity.

Perhaps more surprising about the record installation figure was the take-off of the Chinese distributed solar generation sector. The country continues with the trend shown in 1H 2017 and is estimated to have closed the year at around 20 GW and a massive annual growth of 370% to reach 29.7 GW of cumulative capacity. As explained in November, this rise was caused by a rush to capitalize on highly attractive feed-in tariff (FIT) premiums that expired at the end of 2017.

Duration and Stability Expected

Despite the opportunistic nature of the surge in distributed solar, this sector is not expected to collapse in 2018 (although it might see a fall in new additions). There are several trends that still support the distributed sector. First, the new FIT, although not as attractive as the previous one, is still interesting enough to keep investment in the sector. In addition, the Solar Energy for Poverty Alleviation Program will also support new installations.

Distributed solar has also been beneficial for more fundamental changes in the Chinese electricity sector. The Chinese market is seeing increased competition thanks to China’s power sector reform, now nearly 3 years old, which has included a gradual effort to unbundle retail and distribution business from the large grid companies to varying degrees across provinces. On October 31, 2017, NEA and the National Development and Reform Commission jointly announced a new initiative for Market-oriented Distributed Power Generation as a new part of the power sector reform. The document calls for the creation of platforms that will facilitate electricity trading between distributed generation projects and end users across a local electricity distribution network, starting with large-scale pilots in yet-to-be decided locations. Although it will take time to implement, this initiative should help develop distributed solar installations as behind-the-meter installations will be able to trade their generated electricity freely, paying only distribution network costs, not transmission network costs.


Is DER Taking Off in China?

— November 7, 2017

Last month, the Chinese Photovoltaic Industry Association announced that the country had installed a whopping 24.4 GW of new capacity in the first half of 2017. That China broke its previous year’s record once again makes the announcement news in itself. What is interesting, however, is not the final figure, but how China reached it.

In the first half of 2017, ground-mounted installations (installations without any onsite electricity demand) fell 16% to 17.3 GW, while distributed PV—mostly rooftop projects—almost tripled, reaching 7.1 GW in the same period. Of the 7.1 GW, 3.0 GW of distributed PV was installed in June 2017 alone. By the end of June, China had 102 GW of PV capacity installed, of which 83% was ground-mounted and 17.4 GW was distributed.

A highly attractive incentive program drove this growth. China’s distributed PV users (rooftop plants of up to 20 MW) can access a feed-in tariff premium for 2017 of ¥0.42/kWh ($0.06/kWh) on top of the electricity price for 15 years. In addition, some provinces offer further incentives. For example, Hebei provides ¥0.15/kWh ($0.02/kWh) for the first 3 years of the plant (effective in 2015). Jiangsu Province offers ¥0.50/kWh ($0.08/kWh) for 5 years, and the City of Shaoxing gives an additional ¥1.00/kWh ($0.16/kWh).

The national incentive was left at the same level for the last 4 years while PV module prices fell about 40%, so distributed PV became economically attractive. In addition, late in 2016, China’s National Energy Administration proposed a 28%-52% cut to the distributed PV tariff, depending on the region where the system is installed. This was changed in the latest draft, which now proposes a national tariff of ¥0.30 ($0.05) per kWh on top of the electricity price that would take effect in January 2018.

The expected drop in the incentives created a rush to install distributed PV in 2017, but there are other factors in favor of the massive growth. Curtailment is a major issue faced by Chinese PV installations, and it has pushed the country to ban new ground-mounted installations in the provinces that have the most issues—like Xinjiang and Gansu, where 26% and 22% of all the potential generation is lost (at a cost to the system owner) due to curtailment, respectively. A key advantage of distributed PV installations over ground-mounted installations is the offtaker of the electricity produced onsite, as it limits the risk of curtailment.

Opportunities Beyond PV

Other distributed energy resources (DER) technologies are also poised to gain some ground, thanks to the deployment of distributed PV. In March 2017, the National Energy Board issued a draft paper with “guidelines for the promotion of energy storage technology and industry development,” creating some momentum for the country’s storage market. The local PV companies Trina Solar and Xie Xin have also shown interest in this market and have started to invest in storage to complement their product portfolios. China’s vehicle manufacturer BYD also has a long track record producing battery cells and recently launched energy storage systems for residential and commercial applications.

China’s Competitive DER Industry

The development of DER in China could easily reverberate in the rest of the world. Chinese PV OEMs already lead the world in production and are taking an important role in technology innovation in the renewable sector. If the large Chinese inverter and battery players like Huawei, Sungrow, and BYD create innovative DER products for their domestic market that can be adapted to the North American and European markets, this will be difficult to answer. Despite the import tariff, Asian-made PV modules have conquered the market. However, giving Chinese companies some control over energy assets might be too much for Western governments. Huawei, for example, has been blocked from selling to the US telecom industry. But one thing is certain: we can bet the Chinese player will try.


The Energy Cloud by the Numbers: Supergrids Go Mainstream

— February 24, 2017

A common misconception around the rise of distributed energy resources (DER) and the Energy Cloud is that investment and innovation in the power sector is focused almost exclusively across the grid edge. While the grid’s center of gravity is shifting downstream, utility-scale generation and bulk transmission remain a key buttress for the grid in the midst of a historic transformation.

The global high voltage transmission network connecting centralized generation sources to the distribution grid is estimated to stretch across 3.5 million km. To put this in context, there is enough high voltage infrastructure deployed globally to wrap around the earth 75 times. Although already extensive, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that an additional $7.2 trillion investment is needed for transmission and distribution (T&D) grids through 2030—40% of which is just to replace existing infrastructure.

High voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines, which function as arteries that move large amounts of electricity above and separate from the existing alternating current (AC) grid, are a key focus of this investment. Currently, there is more than 200 GW of HVDC capacity deployed globally.

According to Navigant Research’s Supergrids report, global investment in HVDC infrastructure is expected to increase from $8.3 billion annually in 2016 to $10.2 billion by the end of 2025. An estimated 65 supergrid projects heavily leveraging HVDC are in development or planned around the world. One such project, dubbed the Asia Super Grid, was born out of a memorandum of understanding among Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia in 2011.

Why So Much Fuss Over Expensive Hardware?

Since large-scale renewable energy projects tend to be built in remote areas where resource anomalies exist (such as wind in remote plains, solar in desert regions with high insolation, and geothermal power tapping underground steam located near centers of volcanic activity), bulk transmission is necessary to deliver generated electricity to large population centers, sometimes located thousands of miles away. The largest pools of renewable energy tend to be the farthest from human population centers; supergrids connect these areas of high supply to areas of high demand.

As discussed in the Navigating the Energy Transformation white paper, the emergence of the Energy Cloud will mean an expansion of traditional grid boundaries to integrate local networks of DER—microgrids, virtual power plants (VPPs), and others—as well as expand internationally to tap far-flung pools of renewable resources.

The Expansion of Traditional Grid Boundaries in the Energy Cloud

Source: Navigant Research

China is currently the world leader in the development and deployment of HVDC infrastructure. This is partly out of necessity; not only is China playing catchup with domestic demand for electricity, but the majority of its population of 1.3 billion lives in the east of the country, 2,000 km or more from its most concentrated energy resources. According to an Economist analysis, three-quarters of China’s coal is in the far north and northwest of the country, for example. Meanwhile, four-fifths of its hydroelectric power is in the southwest.

China’s state-owned utility, State Grid, is halfway through its 10-year plan to spend $88 billion on HVDC lines between 2009 and 2020. As investments continue, we expect the prospect of a global grid to come more sharply into focus—though obstacles related to cost, standards harmonization, consensus around rules of free trade of electricity, and geopolitical hurdles will first need to be more firmly settled.


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