When you think about the supply chain side of the solar industry, China comes to mind. Visit a huge conference like Intersolar and Chinese firms that manufacture everything from thin film to ingot for modules to wafers, are everywhere in the exhibit hall. Wuxi, population 4.8 million, has become the solar capital of China, boasting industry giants including Jetion Holdings and SunTech.
But its small neighbor and economic tiger to the northeast, South Korea, has made big moves on the solar front as well. Long dependent on imported fuel, Korea and its conglomerates, or chae-bol, have built their economy over the years from exporting textiles, machinery, its workers to build huge chae-bol construction projects in the Middle East, and now, snappy electronic goods. Iconic companies including Samsung and LG have invested in solar technologies, and Hyundai will double its solar module and solar cell capacity next year. Now Posco, the steel giant, is in talks to purchase a major supplier of silicon for solar panels.
The acquisition of the Norwegian firm Elkem could set Posco back about US$1 billion. Founded over 100 years ago as an aluminum supplier, Elkem expanded its business into the rapidly growing silicon market over the past decade. Its owner, the conglomerate Orkla, is supposedly sharpening its business focus, which currently is all over the place, from food products to real estate.
Some analysts question the wisdom of a steel company investing in renewable energy technology. Korea, however, is rapidly becoming a hub of renewable energy innovation. Solar technology deals have increased throughout Korea, and the country has arguably become an open renewable energy lab: the controversial Songdo City master plan, for example, includes solar technology in its buildings’ plans. Korean firms have entered into partnerships outside the country’s borders, too, including projects in the San Joaquin Valley and Arizona.
In the end, the recent transactions Korean companies initiated reflect a country’s goal to maintain a secure energy supply. Hence Korea National Oil Corp’s hostile bid of the British firm Dana Petroleum, and deals on the renewable side like that of Posco’s. But Posco’s bid also reveals the maturity of the solar industry. While some standard-bearers in the business world like the Wall Street Journal deride solar power as “speculative and immature,” the industry is still growing and evolving, and is now marked with deals in the 10-figure range. Add Korea’s export-driven economy into the mix, and chances are that when solar panels go up in your neighborhood in the near future, they will have the Hyundai, Samsung, or LG logos on them.