Cheap solar panels or high tech jobs – pick one

The Westgarth Cinema in Northcote was the first cinema in Australia to install solar panels, signs of an increasing trend, partly driven by low costs. Picture: Owen Huck
The Westgarth Cinema in Northcote was the first cinema in Australia to install solar panels, signs of an increasing trend, partly driven by low costs. Picture: Owen Huck

By OWEN HUCK 

Chinese solar panel imports to Australia are being sold at rock bottom prices to kill local competition, but the Government has failed to help the local industry compete. 

According to information from the consumer website Choice, buying a 250 watt solar panel from Australia’s only solar manufacturer is up to $92 more expensive than buying a Chinese import.

In April 2015, The Anti-Dumping Commission found Chinese imports were on average 20 per cent cheaper in Australia than in China.

Despite the finding, the commission upheld a decision not to impose tariffs on Chinese imports after an appeal last month.

Founder of solar panel maker Tindo Solar, Adrian Ferraretto, said if solar panels from China were priced fairly, “there would be a lot of manufacturing of Australian solar panels. A lot”.

“It’s not a product that requires a high labour content. It’s advanced manufacturing, so it’s just perfectly suited to Australia,” Mr Ferraretto said.

Australian solar panel manufacturer Silex permanently closed its factory in 2012, with CEO Michael Goldsworthy citing lower costs of Chinese modules as one of the main reasons behind the decision.

Workers at Tindo Solar's factory in Adelaide.
Workers at Tindo Solar’s factory in Adelaide. Picture: supplied.

This left Tindo Solar as the only manufacturer.

Australia has the most solar panels installed on residential rooftops in the world, driven by the lowest prices of all high-wage nations, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in 2015.

But Mr Ferraretto said competition from local manufacturers was in the best interest of the consumer.

“Getting cheap solar power is only a short term thing. Once competition goes away, we’ll be stuck with whatever price they give us and whatever quality they give us,” he said.

However, solar energy researcher Prof Martin Green released a study in May this year saying there were billions of dollars in benefits to Australia from cheaper solar power.

“We might not manufacture the solar cells here but there’s still other flow on activity that is going to provide employment for a lot of Australians,” Prof Green, who is based at the University of NSW, said.

Australia has the most solar panels installed on residential roofs in the world. Picture: Owen Huck
Australia has the most solar panels installed on residential roofs in the world.
Picture: Owen Huck

Australian solar industry jobs have quadrupled since 2008 when only 1800 people were employed in the sector, according to an Australian Photovoltaic Institute report.

There are now more than 12,000 jobs, mostly in mounting the panels on rooftops.

However, Australia lost 23,000 manufacturing jobs in 2014, and it is these “hi-tech manufacturing jobs” that Mr Ferraretto said are important for the country’s economy.

“If we’re making more cars, more aeroplanes, making solar panels, making wind turbines, we will have a more advanced economy,” he said.

“Countries that are rich and doing well are manufacturing countries.”

Prof Green said Australians would benefit most if we stuck to our strengths in science and left manufacturing to Chinese companies who would always be able to make cheaper products.

In the future solar energy would be “cheaper here again because of research developments that happened here”, he said.