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Flying too close to the sun: German solar companies fall on hard times

Despite being celebrated just a few years ago as economic heroes, German solar-panel manufacturers are falling behind Chinese competitors.

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For years Q-Cells reported increasing sales and profits – until suddenly, in 2009, the company suffered a loss of 1.3 billion euros and eliminated 500 jobs. In the second quarter of 2011, Q-Cells lost 355 million euros while generating only 316 million euros in sales. When the company went public in 2005, its shares sold for 57 euros apiece. Today they are worth 80 cents. In February, loans worth 200 million euros need to be repaid – money Q-Cells does not have.

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“The Chinese have copied German technology and now they swamp the market with cheap products, manufactured with lots of state aid and at low wages,” complains Uwe Schmorl, an employees' representative at Q-Cells.

In October, SolarWorld CEO Frank Asbeck, whose company also has facilities in Oregon and California, initiated a petition to the US government signed by six other solar manufacturers, asking to impose tariffs on Chinese solar panels of up to 100 percent. The US is widely regarded as the most important future market for solar energy generation.

President Barack Obama was sympathetic. “We have seen a lot of questionable competitive practices coming out of China when it comes to clean energy,” Mr. Obama said in a November interview with Portland-based KGW NewsChannel 8. “We have filed actions against them when we see these kinds of dumping activities, and we’re going to look very carefully at this stuff and potentially bring actions.”

Obama’s remarks caused a short-lived rally of solar shares in US and European markets, but it did not prevent Solon’s bankruptcy in Germany, nor did it save US solar companies like Solyndra and Evergreen Solar. And not everybody sees a problem there.

“The industry gets a good shake-up,” says Claudia Kemfert, energy expert at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. “Weaker and smaller competitors are kicked out. But the upside is that solar energy finally gets competitive and interesting for private investors – also in the US. This could be the break-through for solar energy.”

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