Suntech Signs Up For Huge Chinese Solar Projects

Last Updated Jul 13, 2009 9:48 AM EDT

Suntech, which likes to bill itself as the "world's largest crystalline silicon photovoltaic manufacturer," has raised its already ambitious sights to a new high. According to a company press release sent out this morning, it plans to build a set of four projects in China totaling 1.8 gigawatts of electricity, pending some regulatory approvals.

Split among four different provinces, each of the installations -- three at 500MW and one at 300MW -- would provide enough power for many thousands of Chinese homes and businesses, assuming they're built. The question is whether they will be.

China's provinces seem to be on a deal-signing spree for renewable energy. Jiangsu, home to Trina Solar among others, just announced a plan for 400MW of solar. Like the Suntech projects, it seems Jiangsu wants to use solar panels for its plants -- far from the cheapest option available (that would be solar thermal technology).

It could be that both the provincial governments and China's native solar companies are hanging their hopes on the state government's new 16 cent feed-in tariff. The tariff will let the plant owners sell their electricity for much higher rates than they could hope for otherwise, and probably several times what coal plant operators in China get.

But it could be wishful thinking to imagine solar panels turning much of a profit even at 16 cents per kWh. That would assume much more efficient manufacturing and better installation techniques than companies have figured out to date.

For now, the plants sound unlikely, even if built over a period of years. But as China's solar panel manufacturers fall into a price war with each other, each must make some big bets. When the dust settles, a company may have emerged that can handle projects of this size.