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Clouding over Swiss solar sector feels the heat from China

The energy plant in Neuendorf

The energy plant in Neuendorf, canton Solothurn, is said to produce power for 1,300 households

(Keystone/Alexandra Wey)

The number of workers in the Swiss photovoltaic industry has almost halved in the past five years. China, which now has 80% of the global market share, continues to undercut the European market. 

On Thursday, Meyer Burger, a Swiss solar equipment maker, announced it would discontinue manufacturing at its Thun headquarters by the end of the year, partly relocating to China. This cost-efficiency programme is expected to result in around 180 job losses, mainly in solar panel production. 

This downsizing continues a trend that began five years ago. In 2011, some 11,000 people were employed in the Swiss photovoltaic industry in production, installation, and research and development. By last year, the figure had dropped to 5,500. 

Indeed, Meyer Burger has been tightening its belt for a whileexternal link, announcing the loss of 450 jobs in 2012 and 250 in 2016. 


Number of solar jobs in Switzerland

What’s going on? According to José Martin at Swissolarexternal link, the decrease in production is due to price pressure exerted by Chinese manufacturers – not only in Switzerland, but also in Germany, which was the global leader in the sector until 2015. 

However, while Swiss manufacturers are hurting, installers, inspectors and maintenance workers are benefiting from the number of solar panels being imported. “Their number has increased and should continue to do so over the coming years,” Martin told Swiss public television, RTSexternal link

More and more Swiss roofs are covered in Chinese solar panels. In the first half of 2017, Switzerland imported CHF85 million ($85 million) worth of panels, of which more than a quarter (CH23 million) were from China. 

The Swiss domestic market, which was at the forefront of the photovoltaic sector in the 1990s, is struggling. Turnover has fallen from more than CHF2 billion in 2011 to some CHF900 million in 2015. 

China’s success can be explained by lower production costs and cheap labour, according to RTS. Considerable state subsidies have also played a key role.

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