Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Rising from behind: Solar Photovaltaics Technology Innovation in China

Saturday, November 14, 2015 : 9:30 AM
Grenada (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Xiaojing Sun, Stanford University
China is the world largest player in solar Photovaltaics (PV) manufacturing and deployment, but a latecomer to PV technology innovation. In this study, we examined a few areas related to PV innovation and discovered that unlike the conventional wisdom, the gap between China and the world leading PV innovators is indeed narrowing. For example, we tracked the record efficiency of six popular PV technologies among Chinese players in the past 10 years and compared them to the world record efficiency. The results show that five out of the six technologies have shown narrowing gaps over time, indicating that the efficiencies of solar cells made in China are increasing at a higher rate than the rest of the world. Using a different metric, we analyzed the number of patents granted in China and found that the number of patents held by Chinese entities has grown significantly in all of the 16 types of PV technologies examined. For three quarters of the technologies, foreign entities used to hold the majority of the patents in Chinese market, but the trend started to reverse since 2009. In certain technology space such as dye-sensitized and organic solar PV, Chinese entities were even the major patent holders to begin with. These evidences suggest that Chinese PV players have become more innovative over time.

Further analysis suggests that two factors have strong influence on China’s growing PV innovation strength.

First, China has a national strategy for solar energy, which was formulated since the 10th Five Year Plan (FYP) in 2001 and has since evolved in the subsequent two FYPs. The strategy has been carried out by the National Science Foundation of China (NSFC) and various programs under the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) through their financial support for a large portfolio of PV technologies that spans across the entire RD&D cycle. In particular, NSFC strategically invests in emerging PV technologies and high-efficiency commercializable technologies where historical innovation gap between China and the world is relatively small and the likelihood for China to leapfrog in innovation is higher.

Second, technology innovation has become a globalized enterprise and China is a likely beneficiary of such trend. In this paper, we mapped the global innovation network of five popular PV technologies. Three models of globalization of innovation emerged: the institutional level collaboration mode where formal R&D collaboration franchises are set up among Chinese companies and research entities and between Chinese entities and foreign research entities; the Great Man model where oversea-trained Chinese researchers returned to China to work in either academia or private companies and revolutionized the research field; and the Hanergy model, which represents a business strategy for acquiring knowledge and technology through global merge and acquisition.

In summary, China has long been seen as the laggard in PV technology innovation albeit its strong record in PV manufacturing and deployment. This paper presents a suite of evidences suggesting that China had made strides to close the innovation gap between itself and the world leading PV innovators.