E.U.-China solar deal highlights tough climate for green jobs

Sean Gallup/GETTY IMAGES – Workers install solar panels containing photovoltaic cells at the new Solarpark Eggersdorf solar park on Sept. 4, 2012, near Muencheberg, Germany. A new E.U.-China deal to set a price floor on cheap Chinese solar panels has opened rifts among European policymakers, manufacturers and environmental advocates. The deal is intended to provide partial shelter to Europe’s solar-panel manufacturers and avert a broader trade war.

BERLIN — European Union countries have long set world-leading goals for fighting climate change and boosting renewable technology. But the economic bottom line might have been a bigger concern when they were faced with a trade war with China over green technology.

A new E.U.-China deal to set a price floor on cheap Chinese solar panels has opened rifts among European policymakers, manufacturers and environmental advocates, with green energy taking a back seat to broader efforts to defend a fast-growing European export market in China.

The deal, intended to provide partial shelter to Europe’s solar-panel manufacturers, averts a broader trade war, as Europe struggles with record-high unemployment and gloomy prospects. China had threatened to boost tariffs on European wine if planned tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels of up to 67.9 percent had gone into effect this month. Instead, the floor will keep prices from falling further from their already-low levels, a step that European solar manufacturers say will do little to protect them.

The divisions have been especially wide in Germany, which has some of the most ambitious green goals in Europe and is the hub of the continent’s once-booming solar-panel industry. Now, Chinese-made solar panels compose 80 percent of the European market.

Many backers of E.U. green initiatives who support the deal say that they do so with mixed feelings.

“We were quite a bit divided. We had quite a few talks,” said Sven Teske, Greenpeace International’s renewable energy director, who lives in Germany.

“We came to the conclusion that the rapid expansion of solar manufacturing in China was actually, at the end of the day, quite good,” he said. “The negative side is that in Germany, solar was a very good way of showing to the general public, ‘See, you can also get a job with renewable energy, and it’s a good alternative to the coal-based jobs,’ ” which are a major part of the economy in areas of eastern Germany, where many solar-panel manufacturers had set up shop.

Higher prices for Chinese solar panels would have preserved manufacturing jobs in Europe but would slow the solar boom that has covered European roofs, fields and open spaces with photovoltaic panels. Labor costs are far cheaper in China, and E.U. manufacturers say Chinese factories benefit from cut-rate, government-backed prices on aluminum and other raw materials.

Germany subsidizes solar-panel installation, regardless of who manufactured the panels, through guaranteed rates paid for electricity fed back in to the grid. The country leads the world in installed solar capacity, although its area is just 3.5 percent of the United States’. Last year, Germany generated 4.7 percent of its electricity from photovoltaic sources.

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