China takes a third of modules

China consumed a third of the world’s solar panel shipments in the last three months of 2012 as it powers up to become the biggest global market this year.

Global PV demand increased to 8.3GW during the fourth quarter of 2012, in a typical year-end surge. About a third of this – or 2.7GW – went to Chinese solar projects, up from less than 10% of fourth quarter demand two years ago, shows data from consultancy NPD Solarbuzz.

Solarbuzz China analyst Ray Lian expects China to have installed around 4.5GW in 2012, with Yingli, Jinko and JA Solar likely the top three suppliers to their home market.

China could install about 7GW of new solar capacity in 2013, says Lian.

“That’s enough to become the largest solar market in the world,” he says.

The government in Germany, long the leading global market, has cut its support for the sector, and expects to install around 4GW of new capacity this year.

Strong demand in China, boosted by state subsidies for solar power plants and rooftop installations, helped panel makers cut swollen inventory levels by 4% from the third quarter, says Solarbuzz.

The reduced inventory and higher prices of key raw materials such as polysilicon and glass has helped lift selling prices slightly to around 4.1-4.2 yuan per watt in the Chinese market, says Sebastian Liu, investor relations director at Jinko.

That shows an improvement on rock-bottom prices of 3.7 yuan in some tenders at the end of last year but it is still almost 40% lower than the pricing of early 2012.

Analysts have warned that China’s growing role as a solar panel consumer may not benefit the bottom line at solar equipment-makers, as fierce competition in the market keeps selling prices at record lows.

China will account for a small portion of global shipments in the first quarter of 2013 as the cold weather and Chinese New Year festivities limit new installations.

Japan will take up the slack with a strong burst of activity in the final quarter of its 2013 budget year. Feed-in tariffs there are set to be reduced from 1 April.