appliedmaterials.jpgChina makes a lot of solar panels but most of them currently go for export causing western rivals to complain that Chinese over-production and price competition is destroying their once healthy markets.

But that situation could soon change, says Mark Pinto, corporate CTO at Applied Materials, the US maker of chip manufacturing equipment, in this WSJ article.

He argues that thanks to strong government support for the solar sector, China is evolving from an area devoted primarily to manufacturing solar panels to one of the world's largest buyers.

Despite making about 40% of the world's solar panels last year, China consumption was symbolic. But in the next two years, he said, China will pass market leader Germany and the US market to become the largest consumer of solar in the world, he predicts.

It remains to be seen how much of that new business is open to western suppliers, who have been having a hard time in recently.

Demand in established solar markets in the west, such as Spain and Germany, has been hurt by tight credit conditions and reduced government subsidies.

Meanwhile, a glut of panels has pushed down prices, hurting many western manufacturers and leading to allegations that Chinese makers are dumping panels.

Applied Minerals is best known as a supplier of chip manufacturing equipment for electronics applications but in recent years it has developed a flourishing business dedicated to making photovoltaic manufacturing equipment. In fiscal 2008, the Energy and Environmental Solutions division, which Pinto runs, generated over $800m for Applied Materials.

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