Employees row a boat as they check solar panels of a photovoltaic power generation project at a fishpond in Jingzhou, Hubei province. Photograph: (Reuters)
China, blighted by pollution and long known for churning out cheap manufactured goods, is looking to dominate the high-end of a major growth market: solar power.
Under a new program, China is pushing the industry to mass market high-performance solar cells so far used mainly in high-tech products like satellites.
Making these cells more affordable will likely further boost a sector that has already disrupted global electricity generation.
It will also put pressure on international solar cell makers such as Canadian Solar, REC Solar, Sharp and Sunpower which compete with Chinese leaders including LONGi Green Energy Technology, Trina Solar, and JA Solar Holdings.
Under its 2017 "Top Runner Program", China's National Energy Administration (NEA) plans to add 8-10 gigawatt (GW) of solar capacity to its existing 80 GW.
"This shift ... could have far-reaching implications for the global solar industry, especially vaulting China into the top ranks of countries pursuing solar R&D," Stanford University said in its 2017 report on the solar industry.
Multi Out, Mono In
World solar power generation capacity has ballooned to around 300 GW from just 1 GW in 2000, according to International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) data - and is set to double again by 2020.
That growth has largely relied on multi-crystalline silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells - sometimes called polycrystalline - in which solar units consist of multiple silicon crystallines.
These have been cheaper to produce than the more efficient mono-crystalline cells, which are made from single crystalline units.
The price of multi-crystalline cells has dropped to well below 50 cents per watt from $80 in 1980.
But prices are now converging as China scales up production of mono-crystalline cells.
Energy Trend, a consultancy, says the average price of a Chinese high-efficiency, multi-crystalline cell is now $0.225 per watt, compared to just $0.319 for high-efficiency, mono-crystalline cells.
"With poly-silicon products, we have seen the (development) ceiling. Now, we are ramping up investment of mono-solar," said Xie Tian, director of quality management at LONGi Green Energy Technology. "Mono-crystalline can take more than 50 percent of the market," he said, up from around a fifth today.
Analysts say demand for mono-crystalline panels is already strong.
"Many panel makers... can't meet orders. Their bookings are full until next year," said Jason Tsai of Energy Trend.
Not New, But Better
Mono-crystalline technology is not new, but because of its cost, has mainly been used in high-tech space products.
But its use is likely to increase as the cost differential narrows, meaning a higher efficiency can be had at a similar price.
Under the "Top Runner" program, pay-outs known as Feed-in-Tariffs will favour high-efficiency projects.
"It's much easier to meet the requirements on mono, therefore it (the program) is accelerating investment in mono," said Steve O'Neil, CEO of REC Solar, a Singapore-based panel maker owned by Chinese state-owned ChemChina.
Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy, a leader in solar development, said in July the record laboratory efficiency for mono-crystalline was 26.7 per cent per cell, versus 21.9 per cent for multi-crystalline.
While China is driving the shift into mono-crystalline, producers globally are adopting.
REC, for example, says it is starting to move into mono-crystallines after focusing largely on multi-crystalline cells.
"We've been looking into mono to further improve power output. In early July, we started production of a... mono solar panel specifically designed for Japan's residential market," O'Neil said.
Solar cell development doesn't end with mono-crystalline cells, and China's competitors aren't sitting idle.
Fraunhofer has developed so-called multi-junction cells with an efficiency of 46 percent, and U.S. aerospace giant Boeing's Spectrolab is developing cells with similar efficiency.