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China's solar manufacturing industry has risen from insignificance to dominating the globe in the past decade.
But that position is now being put to the test by an anti-subsidy investigation the United States began in October 2011 and an anti-dumping investigation started by the European Union this year.
Workers from a solar manufacturing company in Shandong province check solar panels on Wednesday. [PHOTO BY LI ZONGXIAN / FOR CHINA DAILY]
Solar-power generators have largely been unaffordable to domestic users. Take the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing as an example.
In 2008, the university spent 1.87 million yuan ($300,000) to make the street lamps on its campus powered by solar energy. And the cost of maintaining them has since proved to be very high.
"Solar street lamps have more complex structures than regular bulbs," said Ma Luke, who is responsible for the university's solar street lamp project.
"They have a solar panel, battery and converter. If any of those parts breaks down, it will cost at least 300 yuan ($48) to repair them."
To prevent blackouts from occurring on cloudy days, the university has to stay connected to the regular electrical grid even while it uses solar energy.
"Solar street lamps do save some money from electrical fees, but the maintenance costs are much higher than the money saved by using the system," Ma said.
"Also, the money needed to build the system alone is enough to pay the campus' electric bill for 10 years."
Ma said the solar street lamps were only designed to work for 10 years.
Ninety percent of Chinese solar products are exported, making the recent trade disputes begun by the EU and US markets particularly troublesome.
Wan Gang, minister of science and technology, said the photovoltaic industry's current difficulties "won't last long".
"China has already installed the largest number of solar devices in the world, but that still does not match our production capacity," Wan said.
"That is why we carried out projects to allow small distributed solar power generators to connect to the grid starting in 2009."
A test project in Zhangbei county of Hebei province led to the installation of a 60-megawatt wind power generator, 40-mW solar power generator and 20-mW energy storage unit. The solar panels generate power in the daytime, when the wind does not blow strongly, and the wind generator works at night.
"The test project in Zhangbei is proving that we can guarantee we have a sustainable and steady power supply with clean energy and generate no greenhouse gases or pollution," Wan said. "We should carry out more projects like this."
By 2015, China will have 21 million kilowatts of solar power generating capacity, up from the current 10 million kW, according to the country's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) on solar energy, which was published by the National Energy Administration.
"It isn't that there are too many solar power generators in the world, but rather that there are too few," Wan said. "After all, house owners are all willing to install solar panels on their roofs to give them more heat and make things more convenient."