How Norwegian are REC Solar Panels? And Does It Matter?

REC solar panels

Some people are getting their knickers in a twist over whether REC solar panels are European or Asian.

I’ve had a request to clear up the question of whether REC is a European or Asian company. The confusion arises because although the company was founded in Norway and has its headquarters there, it manufactures REC solar panels in Singapore and is owned by a Chinese corporation.

I have looked into this topic exhaustively and I can state the answer to the question of whether REC is European or Asian is — Yes.

Yes — it is European or Asian.

Just which particular continent gets emphasized depends upon who you talk to and, probably more importantly, where they are.

In Europe they seem sure it’s a European company.  They will tell you “REC is the largest European brand of solar panels” even though not a single one is made in that continent.  You only have to go to the REC web site to see plenty of pictures of solar panels in alpine locations and Scandinavian looking people.  But if you go to Singapore, where REC solar panels are made, the consensus there is pretty damn strong that Singapore is located in Asia and not Europe.  In China there is no doubt in people’s minds at all that their country is not in Europe.

REC Group web site

This picture from the REC website could have been taken in China. This might be where they test the Norwegian flags before exporting them.

Among Australian installers who use REC solar panels, there have been those who describe them as “European”.  Because most people will assume this means they were manufactured in Europe, I would say calling REC panels European without qualifying that statement is wrong.  While the company was founded in Norway and uses Norwegian expertise, it is owned by a Chinese corporation and the solar panels are made in Singapore.  This, in my opinion, makes them Asian panels.

Also in my opinion, where panels are made and if they are European or Asian is of no bloody significance whatsoever.  What matters is the quality of the panels.  REC makes high quality, reliable solar panels and has continued to improve them over the eight years they’ve been producing in Singapore and over the past three years they have been Chinese owned.

REC Background

REC was founded in Norway in 1996 and produced their first solar cell the following year.  Norway’s hydroelectricity made it a low cost location to produce silicon and REC apparently still uses Norwegian silicon in its solar panels.  To reduce costs they began producing solar panels in Singapore in 2010 and eventually shut down all Norwegian solar cell and panel production.

In 2015 REC was bought by the Norwegian company Elkem for $778 million1.  Elkem was owned by the Chinese corporation Bluestar — also known as ChemChina —  and had been since 2011.  Fortunately, this change in ownership did not result in a reduction in quality.  They didn’t tell workers in the Singapore factory to stop using solder when producing panels and substitute bubblegum instead.  REC solar panels have continued to improve since the takeover and it is obvious Bluestar bought REC for its skills and talent and not just its production equipment.

What The Hell Is Bluestar?

Bluestar is giant Chinese chemical corporation often called ChemChina.  It is state owned and — just to clear up any possible confusion — I’ll point out the state that owns it is China.  It is focused on producing chemical compounds and animal feed.  A combination that probably doesn’t sound that great to most of us, but the animal feed side is mostly focused on synthesizing vitamins and food additives.

The company began in 1984 when Bluestar took over the management of 100 state owned chemical companies.  Wikipedia says to avoid sackings, excess workers where employed in Bluestar’s Malan noodle restaurant chain.  But as anyone with the slightest knowledge of the history of Chinese noodle restaurants can tell you, Bluestar’s Malan Noodle chain wasn’t established until 1995 and didn’t open it’s ninth store until 1997.  Now that I know Wikipedia isn’t 100% accurate I feel cast adrift upon a sea of uncertainty, so if anyone wants me to join a cult or become a future ex-wife I’m probably very vulnerable at the moment.

The Bluestar company continued to rapidly expand.  They now have around 110,000 employees and $72 billion in assets.  In the last few years they’ve made overseas purchases such as buying the Italian tire producer Pirelli for $10 billion and the German plastics molding company, Krauss-Maffei, for $1.3 billion.

Although they have their fingers in many pies and even more in bowls of noodles, I am confident they had absolutely nothing to do with the Blue Star music video:

It sounds off-key to me, but maybe this is what kids are into these days.  I wouldn’t know.  I didn’t even know when I was a kid.

Why Is A Chinese Corporation Buying Norwegian Assets?

Big companies wheel and deal at an international level all the time and there is nothing unusual about them buying up stuff in other countries.  But when you think about it, Chinese companies buying Norwegian assets is the opposite of what should be happening if we lived on planet sensible.

On a per capita basis, Norway is the richest country in the world that isn’t a city state or Switzerland.  Its nominal2 per capita GDP is $100,000 while China’s is only around $12,000.  So you have a middle income country that is about as rich as Australia in 19793 investing in one that’s eight times richer.  And this isn’t a once off.  China consistently racks up more assets in richer countries than vice versa.

Because investment money is supposed to flow from rich countries to poorer ones, something odd appears to be happening.  While China used to set its exchange rate at a level that let it build up foreign assets, this seems to be over.  As far as I can tell, a lot of Chinese overseas investment is driven by fear that their King4 will grab their in-country assets a la Putin, or in a surprise move, like Mao.

But the reason why Chinese companies are buying so many overseas assets doesn’t really matter if the companies they purchase continue to produce quality products.  And the universal feedback we are getting from installers and consumers is that REC solar panels continue to be high-performing, well-built panels, no matter where the Chinese-owned REC chooses to manufacture them.

Footnotes

  1. All figures are in Australian dollars.  This hurts my brain a little since I sincerely believe international prices should be given in the international currency — US dollars.  But I figured I may as well stop using US dollars now to avoid the rush.
  2. Nominal GDP is not adjusted for living costs and should be the appropriate figure to consider when looking at investment flows.
  3. This is very rough.  It’s really difficult to compare because Australian families back then had more children than Chinese families today and could breath the air.  Also China today is a much more unequal society than Australia in 1979.  It’s even more unequal than Australia now.
  4. I see no reason to pretend that China is anything other than a non-genetic monarchy now.
About Ronald Brakels

Many years ago now, Ronald Brakels was born in Toowoomba. He first rose to international prominence when his township took up a collection to send him to Japan, which was the furthest they could manage with the money they raised. He became passionately interested in environmental matters upon his return to Australia when the local Mayor met him at the airport and explained it was far too dangerous for him to return to Toowoomba on account of climate change and mutant attack goats. Ronald then moved to a property in the Adelaide Hills where he now lives with his horse, Tonto 23.

Comments

  1. This sounds a bit like the Canadian panels that apparently aren’t, but are still regarded very well, I believe.

    Most things that are sold in Australia, are made in China, whatever the brand may be. As governments like in Australia, discourage manufacture in their countries that they rule, China seems quite happy to take over the manufacturing (and, with it, world domination, as not many other countries do much manufacturing any more, so China controls manufacturing).

    About the only country outside China, that does much manufacturing, is Taiwan; Taiwan is a much smaller country than China, and, due to international bullying, is regarded by governments like the Oz government, as being part of China, like Oz appears to be a state of the USA.

    • Ronald Brakels says

      Countries like Australia suffer from Dutch disease. I know this sounds like something you get from kissing Dutch sailors, but actually it is when investment in mining and agriculture crowds out investment in manufacturing.

  2. David Fennell says

    I have REC panels, they are brilliant and I knew they were Chinese before I bought them, the salesman told me. Who cares where they are made as long as they work and work they do, with a 10 year warranty too.

  3. As I have suggested before, it is well past time that there is the ability to do independent testing of panels and solar electrical equipment. What does it matter where they come from ? The point is does it do what the specifications say it does, what is the quality like and will it stand up to our climactic conditions for the life of the warranty ? In the computer world independent reviews have poured cold water on manufacturers’ claims that would otherwise never have come to light.

    Otherwise we are left (as we are now) just arguing the toss about where stuff is made and to be honest I don’t really care. I want to know whether the panel I am buying here in Australia is crap or not and/or value for my hard-earned.

    I’d suggest that Solarquotes seriously consider getting some technical people and equipment to get into this space or else contract to those who can do it – otherwise sooner or later someone else will and guess where everyone is going to go for their information on all things solar !

    • Honesty about where products are made is paramount. Many products labelled ” made in Australia” are still only assembled here with imported components. For example, Tindo Solar panels are ” designed and manufactured in (South) Australia…..from start to finish. ” (their claims) I’m fairly certain the Solar cells they utilize are made in China. That’s ok…any local involvement in the supply chain is welcome…but let’s keep it truthful.

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