When Solar Panels Became Job Killers


China’s solar-panel makers cut their prices by more than a quarter to compensate, sending global prices plummeting. Western companies found themselves unable to compete, and cut jobs from Germany to Michigan to Texas and points beyond.

Those points included Perrysburg — where Mr. Abney and about 450 other employees suddenly found themselves out of work. “Within just a few months, it all came crashing down,” Mr. Abney said. “It’s like a death in the family. People feel awkward talking about it.”

President Trump, who pressed President Xi Jinping of China on trade and other issues this week when they met at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., has vowed to end what he calls China’s unfair business practices. Much of his oratory has involved old-fashioned smokestack industries like steel — industries in which the jobs were already disappearing even before the rise of China.

But economists and business groups warn that China’s industrial ambitions have entered a new, far-reaching phase. With its deep government pockets, growing technical sophistication and a comprehensive plan to free itself from dependence on foreign companies, China aims to become dominant in industries of the future like renewable energy, big data and self-driving cars.

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Russell Abney lost his job as an equipment engineer for a United States-based company when China’s solar-panel makers cut their prices by more than a quarter.

Credit
Matt Roth for The New York Times

With solar, it has already happened. China is now home to two-thirds of the world’s solar-production capacity. The efficiency with which its products convert sunlight into electricity is increasingly close to that of panels made by American, German and South Korean companies. Because China also buys half of the world’s new solar panels, it now effectively controls the market.

For much of the past century, the ups and downs of the American economy could spell the difference between employment or poverty for people like Chilean copper miners and Malaysian rubber farmers. Now China’s policy shifts and business decisions can have the same kind of global impact once wielded by power brokers in Washington, New York and Detroit.

The story of China’s rise in solar panels illustrates the profound difficulties the country presents to Mr. Trump, or to any American president. Its size and fast-moving economy give it the ability to redefine industries almost on a dime. Its government-led pursuit of dominance in crucial industries presents a direct challenge to countries where leaders generally leave business decisions to the businesses themselves.

Already, China is the world’s largest maker and buyer of steel, cars and smartphones. While it does not necessarily dominate those industries, its government ministries are moving to replicate that success with robots, chips and software — just as in solar.

Chinese panel makers “have the capital, they have the technology, they have the scale,” said Ocean Yuan, the chief executive of Grape Solar, a distributor of solar panels based in Eugene, Ore. Of American rivals, he said, “they will crush them.”

Rooted in Fish

Before he became one of the solar industry’s most powerful players, Liu Hanyuan raised fish.

The son of peasants from China’s hardscrabble southwest, Mr. Liu sold some of the family’s pigs in 1983 for what was then around $100 to buy some fish. Soon he went into the even more lucrative business of selling fish feed, and he eventually moved into pig feed and duck feed. The brand name, Keli, is a combination of the first and last Chinese characters from a famous paraphrasing of Karl Marx by Deng Xiaoping, the father of modern China: Science and technology are primary productive forces.

According to Mr. Liu’s authorized biography, he faced local criticism at first for his early embrace of capitalism, and responded by saying that his fish feed was an improved product that followed Deng’s dictum. “When my business grows bigger,” he said at the time, “I will build another floor for labs.”

Plans to shift into computer chips did not pan out, so by 2006, he shifted to solar technology, after taking control of a company that made chemicals for the production of polysilicon, the crystalline raw material for solar panels. That move proved fortunate: China was just then embarking on a concerted effort to become a solar-industry powerhouse.

Building More Factories

China has led the world in solar panel production. But recently, Chinese companies have been building factories outside China, particularly in Malaysia and Vietnam, to bypass anti-dumping and anti-subsidy measures that the United States and European Union imposed on Chinese-made panels four years ago.




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Over the next six years, Beijing pushed state-owned banks to provide at least $18 billion in loans at low-interest rates to solar-panel manufacturers, and encouraged local governments to subsidize them with cheap land. China had more on its mind than just dominating solar exports: Its severe pollution problems and concerns that rising sea levels from climate change could devastate its teeming coastal cities lent urgency to efforts to develop green technology. At the same time, China also became a major player in wind power through similar policies.

With ample assistance, China’s solar-power production capacity expanded more than tenfold from 2007 to 2012. Now six of the top 10 solar-panel makers are Chinese, including the top two, compared with none a decade ago. The solar division of Mr. Liu’s company, the Tongwei Group, which discloses few financial details, is one of the fastest-expanding players in the industry.

That growth forced many American and European solar-panel manufacturers into a headlong retreat. Two dozen of them filed for bankruptcy or cut back operations during President Barack Obama’s first term, damaging the heady optimism then about clean energy.

In 2012 and 2013, the United States and the European Union concluded that Chinese solar-panel makers were collecting government subsidies and dumping panels, or selling them for less than the cost of producing and shipping them. Both imposed import limits. Chinese manufacturers and officials denied improper subsidies and dumping, and still do.

Several large Chinese manufacturers that had previously overexpanded and had been selling at heavy losses for years then closed their doors. But Western solar companies say Chinese banks still lent heavily to the survivors despite low loan-recovery rates from the defaults of big Chinese solar companies like Suntech, Chaori and LDK Solar.

“The main subsidy is massive, below-market loans by Chinese state-owned commercial banks to finance new capacity and also the massive ongoing losses of Chinese companies,” said Jürgen Stein, the president of American operations for SolarWorld, a big German panel maker.

Li Junfeng, a top architect of China’s renewable-energy policies until he retired from that responsibility in early January, said that the West had exaggerated the role of the state in helping to finance Chinese solar-panel manufacturers. “The market can decide for itself,” he said. “The good companies can get money, the bad companies cannot.”

High-Tech Hopes

Like the Chinese solar industry as a whole, Tongwei is thinking bigger.

Mr. Liu’s company bought an enormous solar-panel manufacturing complex in central China in 2013 from LDK Solar, which had run into severe financial difficulties. Now it plans to build factories of five gigawatts apiece in the Chinese cities of Chengdu and Hefei. By comparison, the entire global market is only about 77 gigawatts each year, while world capacity is 139 gigawatts.

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