Shedding sunlight on climate talks

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If world leaders can agree on a climate deal in Copenhagen, solar technology will get the incentives needed to compete in the global energy market, said the chairman of China's largest producer of solar panels on Tuesday.

"It's very important that governments achieve this agreement so that there will be more opportunities to invest in clean technology, especially solar," Dr. Shi Zhengrong of Suntech Power Holdings Ltd. told Xinhua. "We will have a better chance to further improve the technology and reduce the cost."

Suntech is currently worth an estimated 6 billion U.S. dollars and stands as the world's fourth largest producer of solar panels.

Shi spoke with Xinhua in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the UN Leadership Forum on Climate Change, where roughly 300 leaders from government, business and civil society met in the UN Delegates Dining room to discuss the private sector' s role in developing greener economies.

Despite public perception, solar technology is now a mainstream industry, said Shi, adding that during the last five years, the industry has grown over 50 percent continuously.

"Even this year with the financial crisis, the industry has still grown," he said. "So that shows this technology is real."

According to the European Union Commission, solar energy will occupy about 30 percent of the world's energy consumption by 2050 and by the end of this century, it will reach 70 percent.

While U.S. President Barak Obama has proclaimed he wants the United States to be "the world's leading exporter of renewable energy," China has unabashedly vied to become the dominant player.

Suntech and other Chinese companies have been most effective in lowering the price of solar panels by almost half over the last year, particularly as the industry has been supported by the Chinese government.

Shi said solar module prices have dropped significantly in the last year, from 5 U.S. dollars per watt in 2008 to 2 U.S. dollars in 2009. And with more widespread consumption, the cost of producing solar panels will only get cheaper.

Suntech is prime example of a business that stands to gain from an effective climate agreement in Copenhagen. The solar company gets its parts and technology from Europe and the U.S. but the actual manufacturing is done in China.

Protectionist measures and trade barriers do nothing to spur investment or create new markets for businessmen like Shi. If leaders can agree on adequate regulatory policies and create a standard for various support mechanisms, it will foster a competitive environment for the clean energy industry, said Shi.

"When we have the market, the technology will develop itself," he said. "If there is no market, there will be no factory. There will be no product."

Already, Suntech is planning to build a panel assembly plant either in Texas or Arizona to save on shipping costs and fall in line with U.S. federal economic stimulus rules that would exclude Chinese-made products from projects funded by the country's stimulus-package.

An international agreement would undoubtedly help the company maneuver through complicated national legislation and expand its market in an industry built on an infinite source of energy.

"We believe that the technology is ready," he said, "but if we don't have agreement, regulation or support from the government, we don't even have a chance to fight climate change."

(Xinhua News Agency September 23, 2009)

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