Day 10. Zhangjiagang. Monday 29th Oct.

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Easy morning. Slept in till 7.30am then the regular sumptuous breakfast with Mike and Ann before joining up with Bo and the rest of our entourage. Today was to be a full day tour of Zhangjiagang starting with a visit to a nearby historical village and ex-Governor’s mansion, followed by a walk around a forested island park on the Yangtze River. But I was keen to get back to work on Solar, and today was a perfect opportunity to meet with Keppel Prince’s solar panel supplier Sunlink in person. So I asked to break off after lunch to the factory while Mike and Ann visited the island.

To expand on this a little – the connection with Sunlink is VERY important to Keppel Price, as it cements an economic bond between the two sister cities. Of course it helps that Sunlink make some VERY good quality panels!

And that's what we did. The old village/mansion tour was extremely interesting. The protocols that the ruling class lived by were stringent to say the least. They lived a very luxurious life but one that also looked potentially very boring, especially for the extended family not able to do the fun things like actually get involved in governing.

We went back to our hotel for our lunch. Yes it was another banquet and we dined with still more or the Zhangjiagang government. It was a little strange to have just seen a glimpse of the region’s ancient ruling class, then step straight into and be absorbed by today’s. Not that I was complaining!

After lunch I visited Sunlink. It was a detailed tour of the complete manufacturing process and I learned a lot. I took lots of photos as well and tried hard to get the factory employees to smile for the camera. It started slow but by the end got lots of great and useful shots. The very softly spoken Nash is our sales representative and he (yes Nash was male – the first male company rep I’d met) did a good job explaining it all. We also met with Nash’s manager Angelo who was also very good and we had a great discussion on market problems and potential opportunities from both Sunlink and KPE's perspective.

What I learned is that Sunlink like all Chinese solar module makers are finding life tough now that they have been locked out of the US market, and this will be compounded further next year when the European Union does the same. India is also not on their agenda because of a growing solar module manufacturing industry there and China might end up being locked out of it as well!

China itself has good support for utility-scale projects in the far-West of the country but huge investments in grid infrastructure are also needed and this is taking time. Also there is lots of competition among the Chinese companies and State owned companies have an advantage over independent companies like Sunlink. Because of these problems Sunlink is extremely keen to secure continued distribution into existing markets like Australia and also get into emerging markets such as South Africa and Pakistan. Because KPE is really Sunlink's only major Australian customer there exists a strong opportunity for KPE to have a business relationship upgrade from purchaser to distributor and receive lower prices for modules - with a minimum annual purchase agreement of course. Good for everyone.

For my part I informed Sunlink of our intentions to cope with very low residential FiTs by either keeping systems small enough to be less than consumption or to provide systems with energy storage. I also explained the growing commercial market and the possibility for KPE to enter the utility scale market, as well as become a distributor to community groups looking for a trustworthy and ethical supplier of Chinese components. I finished by explaining the rebate reduction situation and potential further reduction as a result of Australia's RET review and the upcoming 2013 Australian federal election. All of this information was well received and we agreed to continue discussions via email on up-scaling to distributor.

After official photos I was driven back to my hotel and had a couple of spare hours before dinner, so decided to try out Zhangjiagang's 50m public swimming pool. In another surprise (China always does that), the HUGE building to house the pool was taken up mostly with shops and the pool itself was a sweaty crowded 25m pool full of very fast squad kids and slow struggling adults in casual lanes. Just like most Australian pools really!

Dinner was yet another big deal. This time because it was to be our last before leaving Zhangjiagang in the morning. Yes it was yet another banquet and I don't want to sound unappreciative but we were being so spoilt that they had become our regular meal. But of course it was still phenomenal. We had lots of toasts and thank-you’s all round. The Zhangjiagang government really does genuinely value visits from Portland especially when they involve Mike who they adore.

The dinner wrapped up early however so Mike, Ann and I decided to go for a long walk through Zhangjiagang. We rugged up as it was drizzling lightly and headed off for about 90 minutes. As normal we felt completely safe and welcome wherever we went.

I got to bed at about midnight again.


Day 11. Zhangjiagang - Hangzhou - Nanjing. Tuesday 30th Oct. >>