By Charlie Zhu and Swetha Gopinath
Feb 28 (Reuters) - Beijing's goal of tripling solar power from small-scale operations such as rooftop panels looks overly ambitious, risking disappointment for investors who have bid up shares in Chinese solar panel makers in the past year.
China has a target of installing 14.5 gigawatts (GW) of solar generating capacity this year - close to Finland's entire power capacity.
Of that, it expects 8GW from so-called distributed solar, which includes rooftop panels and other small installations. The aim is to redress an imbalance caused by a glut of large solar farms in China's vast western region, where there is plenty of sunshine but not enough infrastructure to harness and transmit the power to the densely populated south and east.
But unless China promises bigger subsidies and financing support, and streamlines the process of acquiring rooftop rights, companies say the rooftop installations just aren't worth it.
"The economics of distributed solar are in doubt," said Wang Xiangfu, chief executive of Hong Kong-listed solar panel maker and solar power developer Shunfeng Photovoltaic International Ltd. "The goal is very difficult to achieve unless the state raises subsidy," said Wang, echoing the view of officials at numerous major Chinese solar makers and developers interviewed by Reuters over the past few weeks.
Even state-run media have cast doubt on the government's projections for distributed solar.
China Energy News, which is published by the People's Daily - the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party - on Sunday quoted industry experts as saying that it would be "difficult" to realise the plan due to a series of challenges, from unattractive returns to the quality of many rooftops in China.
U.S.-listed Yingli Green Energy, whose shares have doubled in the past year, said its focus remained on solar farms even though it announced in January that it had partnered with China National Nuclear Corp to develop 500 megawatts (MW) of distributed solar in China.
"We are increasing our efforts in the (distributed) market segment ... that said, the majority of our 2014 pipeline is from the utility sector," said Yingli spokeswoman Qing Miao.
Lured by generous subsidies and easy loans, Chinese solar developers installed 10-11 GWs of solar generating capacity last year, mostly solar farms in the Gobi desert and barren hills of western China. Some solar farms are still sitting idle, unconnected to the grids.
LET THE LOBBYING BEGIN
Chinese solar companies are lobbying Beijing to transfer part of the quota for distributed energy projects this year to the construction of solar farms, which offer more attractive annual returns of above 10 percent at a subsidised feed-in tariff of up to 1 yuan per kilowatt hour (kwh).
But if there is no quick response, it could disrupt China's solar installation plan this year and hurt sales of major solar panel makers, analysts say.
After being hit hard by overcapacity, trade and price wars in the past few years, companies including JinkoSolar, Trina Solar, JA Solar and Canadian Solar saw a strong rebound in their business and share prices over the last two quarters.
That was mainly driven by China's announcement in July that it planned to more than quadruple solar generating capacity to 35 GWs - which entails total investment of $50 billion - by 2015. Japan's push to find alternatives to lost nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima disaster added to optimism in the solar sector.
Analysts expect global panel shipments to rise by at least a 10th this year to more than 40 GWs, led by China and Japan.
That has fuelled investor optimism.
Edward Guinness, co-portfolio manager at Guinness Atkinson Asset Management in London, which holds shares in Trina and Yingli, believes the solar industry is moving into an upcycle, with demand strong and panel prices unlikely to fall further.
"I think China can get to 14.5GW this year," he said. "I expect China to exceed expectations over the next two years in terms of installations."
UP ON THE ROOFTOP
China offers a subsidy of 0.42 yuan per kwh for distributed solar, which solar companies say isn't enough to make up for the risks and hassles. It is difficult to get rooftop rights, and customers have to pay upfront to install systems that take years to pay off.
Some analysts say China would need to raise the subsidy by at least 0.10 yuan per kwh to make distributed solar attractive.
China hopes rooftops of industrial properties would become a major target for solar installation and factory owners can become a source of demand for solar-generated electricity. But solar power developers have their doubts about credit-worthiness among China's small businesses.
Financing is a problem because banks and local capital market investors generally don't understand the economics of distributed solar projects and have doubts about the earnings prospects.
Distributed solar yields annual returns of less than 10 percent, industry officials estimate, compared with around 12 percent for large-scale solar farms. That is not enough to attract the cash-starved smaller businesses that it is hoped will play a big role in distributed solar development.
Returns may be even lower if solar developers have to rent rooftops. Most of China's existing 5 GWs of distributed solar projects were installed under a pilot scheme called Golden Sun, which offers more generous subsidies but will be terminated soon, industry experts say.
"The 8-GW distributed solar may eventually get built this year. said Jiang Zhe, chief executive of Shanghai-based Upsolar, which specialises in installing rooftop solar in China. "But we all know it is an extremely challenging target."