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Monthly Archives: August 2011

Thanks China! U.S. solar exports skyrocket 83 percent

Solar Panels

Contrary to conventional wisdom, China’€™s boom in solar manufacturing has been a boon for U.S. companies. In 2010, U.S. exports of solar products skyrocketed 83 percent to $5.6 billion thanks to Chinese demand for raw material and equipment used to make photovoltaic modules, according to a new report by GTM Research from the Solar Energy Industries Association. More importantly, the U.S. was a $1.9 billion net exporter of solar energy products.

The upshot? The U.S. solar industry is pretty diverse, well-balanced and still poised for growth. The U.S solar industry is clearly central to the global supply chain, as the report suggests. More impressive is that rate of growth. In 2009, the U.S. solar industry had a positive trade flow of $723 million. A year later, it more than doubled.

The key phrase here is solar products, which mean the entire value chain including “€œsoft costs”€ such as installation labor, permitting, site preparation and financing. These soft costs made up nearly 50 percent of the total solar revenue in 2010.

Photovoltaic components accounted for more than 99 percent of the year’€™s exports with most of that supply heading for China and Germany. Polysilicon, the feedstock of crystalline silicon photovoltaic, was by far the largest category. Exports of polysilicon hit $2.5 billion, more than double the amount in 2009.

Highlights from the report:
Capital equipment exports were $1.4 billion

U.S. imports of PV products totaled $3.7 billion. The majority came from modules assembled overseas. China and Mexico were the top two sources of PV goods.

The U.S. was a net exporter of solar products to China last year by more than $240 million;

For every dollar spent on a U.S. solar installation in 2010, $0.75 accrued to the United States.

By Kirsten Korosec | August 30, 2011

Tantalum Market Has Hard Time

Tantalum is a chemical element with the symbol Ta and atomic number 73.

Rare Industrial Metal - Tantalum

LONDON, Aug 26, 2011 (BUSINESS WIRE) — The projected future for niobium producers looks quite positive while the tantalum market will probably experience hard time under conditions of major supply shortfalls. Associated geologically, tantalum and niobium have very different application areas that have impacted the development of both markets significantly during the crisis period.

The recent mine closures have cut global tantalum supply by around 40% and demand for the material is forecast to increase by only small index. However tantalum has valuable advantages over its competitive materials and is widely used in the manufacture of electronic capacitors.

For niobium the forecasts are that as end-users bring back their suspended capacity the demand will reach healthy growth rate. Although given the fact that the output of the material is enough to cover the projected consumption, there is little prospect of investing into the industry in future.

Detailed review and outlook on global, regional and country markets of tantalum and niobium can be found in the new market research report “Tantalum and Niobium (Columbium) Market Review” that presents in-depth discussion of the present market landscape, historical background and future forecasts for the markets and features topical data showing tantalum and niobium capacities, production, consumption, trade statistics, and recent prices (globally, regionally and by country).

Report Details:
Tantalum and Niobium (Columbium) Market Review Published: February, 2011 Pages: 63

The research covers insightful information on tantalum and niobium major marketers – producers and suppliers, features data on tantalum and niobium production, consumption and trade in the reviewed countries, tantalum and niobium prices. Market outlooks through 2016, showing projected tantalum and niobium market volumes and prices, are also reviewed.

The report on tantalum and niobium has been worked out by Merchant Research & Consulting Ltd, an internationally recognized market research agency, specializing in chemical industry. “Tantalum and Niobium (Columbium) Market Review” is included into the catalogue “Metals”, which also incorporates studies on Aluminum, Antimony, Beryllium, Chromium, Copper, Iron and Steel, Lead, Magnesium, Mercury, Titanium markets.

SOURCE: Merchant Research & Consulting Ltd.

China Buying Silver to $100 Plus an Ounce

Silver BullionChinese demand to Buy Silver for solar panel manufacture will push the price to three digits, says this fund manager…

MANAGING big-cap growth stock market funds since 1999, Stephen Leeb ,chairman and chief investment officer of Leeb Capital Management,€“ has recently been a big proponent of silver, calling for the Silver Price to rise above $100 an ounce, despite its record price being half that.

Here Stephen Leeb talks to Hard Assets Investor’s managing editor Drew Voros about why he believes demand to Buy Silver, particularly from China, will push the commodity up to three-digit prices.

Hard Assets Investor: You have declared that silver is a “three-digit” commodity. Why?

Stephen Leeb: I think there are two crucial fundamentals. One, silver’s a monetary metal, although not as widely recognized as a monetary metal as gold right now. But it certainly has a history of being a monetary metal. People will price it for that. You have a race to the bottom in terms of all the current reserve currencies, like the Euro and the Dollar. The action in gold is certainly evidence of that. The fact that silver’s price [has been] holding in the upper 30s is pretty good. There’s a lot of downside protection in silver because of its monetary component.

On the industrial side, silver is critical. Silver has properties that cannot be duplicated on many levels. It is the best thermo-conductor of anything that’s found. It conducts heat better than anything else. It conducts electricity better than copper or anything else. And, it’s one of the best reflectors. Is it really surprising then that silver is a critical component on most solar applications? China right now is spending about $1 trillion a year on alternative energies. China controls the solar industry. They have at least 50% market share. They’ve been underbidding, undercutting everybody in the development and acquisition of polysilicon. After which comes silver. In order to build these solar panels, you need silver.

You have a potential, utter squeeze coming on silver, a monetary metal with critical industrial applications. The Silver Price is trading around $39 and hasn’t even come down 10% since the market started sliding. It’s a great hedge in deflation. You’re going to have demand for silver coming from two places, which I don’t think you’re going to be able to satisfy, given that silver production today is rising at a much slower rate than it was in 2010, despite the fact that Silver Prices are higher. That dictates dramatically higher prices for silver.

HAI: Do you think the solar element is something that is being overlooked in terms of the demand?

Leeb: Totally. China will start Buying Silver much more aggressively and start accumulating it. There’s very little doubt in my mind that China will be accumulating massive amounts of silver.

HAI: For silver to achieve three digits in price, would it be a slow, steady march, or something that would rocket up?

Leeb: I don’t think it would be a single event. I wrote a book, The Oil Factor, and in it I made the call for $100 [a barrel] oil. I said “three digit oil”. When the book was published in 2004, oil was around $30 or so, about the same price as silver is now. It took about three years to get to three digits. But there was no event that triggered the big jump in oil prices. There has been no event that has triggered the big jump in Euros, other than the gradual realization that there are no reserve currencies in the world that are worth a darn. The same realization will keep silver in a strong, long-term uptrend. I think people are going to be very surprised, very surprised, when the Silver Price just goes past $50.

HAI: Is $50 the figure that, once it breaks through that, it can take off, or is it further up the line?

Leeb: No, people make too much of these breakout points. If it goes to $50, it’s likely to go to $51 pretty quick. I’m sort of being funny. I don’t think that it’ll tick at $50, and then the next tick will be $80. If it goes to $50 it will likely get a little pop, maybe low $50s or mid-$50s and walk around there for a while and then go up again.

HAI: Do you think that that would happen independent of gold?

Leeb: It will be independent of gold. I think all commodities are going to have to go a lot higher. I just don’t think there are enough commodities out there to build out renewal or alternative energies. I don’t think China realizes it. I mean, you’ve got peak [price] coal, you’ve got peak oil, peak everything. Silver, even without the monetary component, would make it into three digits.

HAI: You seem to have a bullish sense of growth; global growth as well?

Leeb: I wouldn’t say global growth. I’m bullish on Chinese growth. China’s a wicked enemy of ours. They’re monopolizing resources. They’ll continue to do that because I think they’re looking out for their own. It’s hard to have a totally bullish outlook on growth when you’re looking at resource scarcities that are going to affect China as well.

HAI: Do you think that gold and silver are in the same asset class?

Leeb: They’ve never been in exactly the same asset class. There’s no industrial use for gold. It’s become ever-more recognized as a possible reserve currency. Silver does have industrial uses. It’s industrial vs. nonindustrial. They’re totally different classes. But silver overlaps. In a diagram, you would have silver in both sets: the industrial set as well as the monetary set.

HAI: What fundamentals of silver do you worry about? What would change your opinion?

Leeb: A lot of it has to do with China. What would change my opinion? If we found other ways of creating solar energy that did not involve silver, and I don’t see any on the horizon, that certainly would merit reconsideration. If China collapsed, then the calculus surrounding the world totally changes, including silver, but not just silver.

HAI: How should a retail investor approach silver as an investment?

Leeb: I would approach precious metals as an asset class in and of itself. As an asset class, you try and diversify within the class. There are the commodities themselves, which you can buy through an ETF or you can buy through coins. There are lots of ways of participating. There are senior miners. There are junior gold miners, like NovaGold, which happens to be one of my favorites. Not only does it mine gold, it has a lot of copper. There are going to be seniors like Goldcorp., like Barrick.

HAI: What would you suggest for an asset allocation in precious metals?

Leeb: It makes sense to weight it at least on the same level as you would weight stocks. Whatever your highest allocation is, precious metals should be higher than that allocation.

22 August 2011

Can The U.S. Break China’s Stranglehold On Rare Earth Metals?

These elements are the building blocks of a modern society, and China has all of them. Until now. The U.S. mining industry is starting to catch up.


You may not know what rare earth metals are, but they probably feature prominently in your life: These 17 chemical elements, which are buried in the Earth’s crust, are found in common electronics (lithium-ion batteries, laser pointers), and many clean technologies (electric car motors, solar panels, wind turbines). It’s not surprising, then, to learn that our demand for dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, and the like have increased in recent years. As it stands, the Western hemisphere is almost entirely beholden to China for its supply of rare earths. And China is willing to play hardball with its mineral deposits, putting the U.S. in a dangerous position where a key part of our economy and society is controlled by a not altogether friendly country. But that may be about to change.

Rare earth metals, paradoxically, are actually not that rare at all–in fact, many rare earths are more common than gold. But up until now, the economic incentives to mine them just haven’t been there. Recently, however, China started to curb exports and raise prices of these previously cheap metals, realizing both that they need a large domestic supply and that much of the world is dependent on them. Outside of China, rare earth metals are seen in high concentrations in select sites in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. And that’s creating a burgeoning rare earth industry in the U.S.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the USGS flew over the U.S., using airborne magnetometers to find anomalies in the Earth’s magnetic field that could signify big rare earth deposits. In recent years, mining companies have taken it upon themselves to confirm the presence of these deposits. They use everything from satellite technology to “almost old-fashioned prospecting. They go out in the field looking for interesting rocks and minerals, and indications of spots of interest,” says Gareth Hatch, Founding Principal of Technology Metals Research.

There are hurdles for ambitious companies to jump through. The U.S. used to produce rare earth metals at the Mountain Pass Mine in California, but it was shut down in 2002 largely because of lack of demand and environmental issues (the mine spilled a large amount of radioactive water into a neighboring lake). In 2008, Chevron sold the site to Molycorp, a company interested in reviving the old mine. Molycorp is currently expanding and modernizing the mine–a process that will yield 40,000 metric tons of rare earths by 2013, or 25% of the world’s supply.

The company, which is spending $2.4 million a year on environmental compliance and monitoring, says it plans to keep the process as clean as possible. “If what they say is what they do, you’re looking at a much more environmentally friendly process than in China, with the recycling of water and reducing effluent into the environment,” says Hatch. “But at the end of the day, you’re still messing around with some pretty nasty chemicals, and you still have waste piles of rock and radioactive material.” Fast Company’s calls to Molycorp have not been returned.

In China, rare earth mines are often responsible for egregious environmental violations, including air pollution and the production of wastewater that contains large amounts of radioactive material and acid. The pollution makes people sick, and it destroys local farmland and waterways.

California’s Mountain Pass is huge, but it isn’t enough to supply all of America’s rare earth metals. This is partially because it will produce mainly light rare earths instead of heavy rare earths, a group of chemicals that are often found in smaller concentrations. We need both types to manufacture the electronics and gadgets we enjoy so much.

There is hope for American independence in the heavy rare earth arena, however. The Pea Ridge iron mine in Missouri has a known deposit, and Quest Rare Minerals is exploring some major heavy rare earth mines in Quebec, a place that probably isn’t as likely as China to cut off the U.S. from imports or jack up prices impossibly high.

And the U.S. may soon have another major rare earth mine to count on in Nebraska, where Quantum Rare Earths is working on what may be the biggest untapped rare earths deposit in the world. But there’s a catch: Actually mining this deposit may not happen for a while. “It needs to be further explored and defined,” says Scott Wescott, a corporate communications representative for Quantum Rare Earths. That means it will take at least two to three years just to figure out the economics of mining and work on gathering permits for construction.

The permitting process is a major hurdle for U.S. companies. “The time it takes to get through the red tape is mind-boggling,” says Hatch. One DOE report claims that it will take 15 years to break dependence on Chinese rare earth metals (Hatch believes it’s more like eight to 10 years).

But we don’t necessarily have to wait for companies outside of China to get moving on their rare earth projects. In the meantime, it’s worth paying attention to companies like Nanosys, which manufactures more sustainable replacements for some of the rare earths found in LED backlighting.

Even with multiple mines and creative companies working on replacements, the U.S. will likely remain at least partially dependent on China for rare earths. It’s the classic problem of competing with China: Multiple layers of red tape may do some good in protecting the environment, but they really slow things down.

Ariel SchwartzTue Aug 16, 2011

Specialty Glass: Engineered for Greater Thin-Film Solar Efficiency

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has created thin film solar panels that are very close to competing with their more traditional silicon-based cousins. "The copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) thin-film solar cell recently reached 19.9 percent efficiency in testing at the lab, setting a new world record."

Thin Film Solar

Improved performance and efficiency in photovoltaic systems have traditionally focused on advances in battery technology or charge controllers. Recently, however, solar module makers are looking at specialty glasses for better performance.

Both crystalline silicon and thin-film module makers have long known that low-iron soda lime glass can provide higher conversion efficiency relative to standard soda lime glass. Standard soda lime glass has been used in PV panels up until now, largely due to availability.

Low-iron glass provides higher optical transmittance as compared to standard soda lime glass

Float glass manufacturers throughout the world produce a range of thicknesses, with 3.2 millimeter thick soda lime being the most common due to its use in applications such as architecture, transportation and now solar modules. Though a number of factors contribute to increased solar cell efficiency, low-iron glass provides higher optical transmittance as compared to standard soda lime glass. Corning’€™s engineered glass, for example, provides optical transmittance performance that exceeds both.

If one considers the 400 nm to 900 nm wavelength range of the solar spectrum, measurements show that standard soda lime glass transmittance decreases rapidly from just below 90% at 400 nm to less than 80% at 900 nm. Low-iron soda lime glass performs better, exceeding 90% transmittance at 400 nm, though the transmittance declines to less than 90% at 900 nm.

High optical transmittance is only one factor which contributes to higher solar cell efficiency. Iron-free, engineered glass has been proven to increase thin-film cell efficiency even further.

High conversion efficiency creates significant value.

Specialty glass further enables high efficiency through its ability to withstand high absorber layer deposition temperatures. While soda lime glass is readily available for photovoltaic applications, the ability of this glass to withstand high temperature (up to 600°C and beyond) is a limiting factor. New engineered glass from Corning presents the opportunity to raise absorber deposition temperatures, with demonstrated absolute efficiency increases of greater than +1% achieved by depositing thin film absorber layers at high temperature. The use of increased absorber deposition temperature results in a higher quality semiconductor film, and hence, higher solar cell efficiency.

Raising cell efficiency should be looked at as more than just a technical measure of solar industry progress. Increased efficiency creates higher energy output for a given system size, and can reduce overall balance of system (BOS) costs.

Consider a side-by-side comparison of a hypothetical thin-film module with an area of one square meter. It’€™s reasonable to assume that soda lime glass enables a module efficiency of 10%, whereas the use of a specialty glass could potentially increase this to 12%. A 100 W module would now produce 120 W when manufactured with engineered glass. Efficiency and power output are correspondingly increased by 20%. Reduced weight reduces costs

A secondary benefit of using thinner, specialty glass is weight reduction. Specialized glass can be produced in different thicknesses to meet customer specifications. Instead of the traditional 3.2 mm soda lime glass, module makers will find engineered glass to be significantly thinner, no greater than 2 mm.

The same one square meter module described above using one sheet of 1.5 mm specialty glass combined with 3.2 mm soda lime glass weighs 28% less than the same module using two pieces of 3.2 mm soda lime. The result is lower BOS costs by reducing transportation and installation expenses.
More efficient, lighter, thinner but is it reliable?

Corning specialty glass for thin-film photovoltaic solar panels. The majority of solar module warranties cover a period of 25 years, and depending on location, the installation may be exposed to wind, rain, hail, snow and even blowing sand. Despite being much thinner, the special nature of engineered glass makes it reliable for solar installations. Engineered glasses made by Corning meet or exceed International Electronic Commission (IEC) standards.

This includes withstanding a 25 mm ice ball impact at 23 m/s, wind load resistance of 2,400 Pa, and heavy snow load of 5,400 Pa.
Looking ahead.

As the trend indicates, the glass of choice used in solar modules is changing as new, engineered glasses are being developed and customized to achieve higher conversion efficiency. Corning is tailoring glasses for each of the leading thin-film technologies: cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium di-selenide (CIGS), and Si-Tandem. Corning’€™s research has produced consistently high cell efficiencies for CdTe, and achieved a world record 11.9% cell efficiency for Si-Tandem.

Independent of technology, increased conversion efficiency and lower cost per watt is vital for the long-term success of the PV market.

Written by Dr. Mark Krol | 10 August 2011

About the Author
Dr. Mark Krol is Commercial Technology Director at Corning Photovoltaic Glass Technologies in Corning, New York.

China’s robotics revolution may boost rare earths, precious metals

Taiwanese technology giant, Foxconn has announced that it will deploy one million robots in three years time to do a variety of routine functions including assembling, spraying and welding. The company has an employee strength of 1.2 mn of which one million is employed in Chinese Mainland.

Foxconn has already announced major expansion plans for China and nineteen new projects are in the pipeline including factories that will produce cameral lenses,LED lighting rigs and recently it opened a facility in Chengdu, provincial capital of Sichuan to manufacture laptop computers.

The impact of increased robotics usage in creating unemployment has often been discussed while the goal is to reduce labour costs and improve efficiency.

 However, the impact of increased robotics deployment will be see in commodities- both precious metals and rare earth elements stand to gain if China robotics revolution were to become a world-wide phenomenon. Already China restrictions on export of rare earth elements (REE) very critical for electronics, industrial, automobile and renewable energy applications has led to miners re-opening closed rare earth facilities around the world especially in USA and Canada. Recycling of rare earths has also intensified

Electronics industry also utilises precious metals including Gold and Silver in varying quantities in integrated circuits and assemblies.

The Silver Institute estimates that industrial demand for silver will jump to 666 million ounces by 2015, or a 36% increase from 2010. A report said the forecast growth will come from established applications, such as silver’s use in electrical contacts and in the photo-voltaic market. The technical proficiency of silver limits the ability to switch in favor of lower-cost alternatives, making the metal largely price inelastic. Emerging end-uses that benefit from silver’€™s antibacterial properties or incorporate silver’€™s electrical and thermal conductivity are expected to boost silver consumption through 2015.

According to World Gold Council technology demand for gold remained steady in the first quarter of 2011 at 113.8 tonnes ($5.1bn). A revision to the fourth quarter figures now means that 2010 was the highest year on record for gold demand in electronics at 326.8 tonnes or $12.9bn.

Meanwhile, rare earth mining stocks are seeing a flurry of activity in recent weeks due to general industry movements and short covering, according to an article in Seeking Alpha. Among the stocks to watch are Molycorp (NYSE: MCP) which is now trading at $54 levels. Molycorp shares gained on announcement ofits major supply agreements while Rare Element Resources (AMEX:REE) also rallied recently, to a lesser extent Avalaon Rare Metals (AMEX:AVL) and Rare Earth Stock index at NYSE rose following positive developments in the industry.

By Sreekumar Raghavan
04 August 2011

Gold & Silver Beyond the Limit

Perhaps the debt ceiling should be renamed the “national debt target,” for it seems Washington is always trying to reach it. One could say it’s their only reliable, time-tested achievement. And without fail, upon reaching their national debt target, they promptly extend it further in order to discover how quickly it can once again be attained!

While I have little doubt that the ceiling will be raised, my readers have been curious as to the implications for gold in each of the debt and “default” scenarios possible after August 2nd. This month, I’ll outline how each outcome could affect the price of gold and silver.


 My readers know that this scenario is actually what the US government should do. The debt ceiling should not be increased and massive cuts must be made. We know this outcome is extremely unlikely, it would require not only a resolute steadfastness to sound money, but also a 180-degree change of philosophical beliefs by the majority of Congress (and the American public) overnight.

 Yet in our fantasy world, if this did occur, it would be bearish for gold. It would mean the US government was shrinking, that debts were being paid, that the entire US economy was becoming more solvent and viable. Gold would be less important to own, as the risk of both currency crises and sovereign debt crises would be lower.


If the debt ceiling is raised in order to avert imminent default, but the spare time is used to truly bring the federal budget into balance, the US economy might still be saved. But when I say “balanced,” I mean it. This would mean not only eliminating the entire $1.5 trillion deficit, but also leaving enough of a surplus to cover all outstanding debt and unfunded liabilities. For perspective, Senator Rand Paul’s proposal to but $500 billion a year, widely considered more radical than landing a man on Mars, would only address 1/3 of the annual deficit – it would take cuts many times that for the US to return to solvency.

But let’s be optimistic: if the budget could be balanced, then the fact that the debt ceiling was being increased yet again would not be so awful. Since the US government’s fiscal policies would be completely reversed, we could expect to start seeing a strengthening of the dollar (so long as Bernanke stopped the printing presses too) and a weakening of gold and silver.

However, this is just as much of a pipe dream as the first scenario. No government in history has dug itself out of the hole we now face without defaulting. If Congress even tried to enact a plan like this, people would be rioting in the streets over their lost entitlements. And we’d suddenly have millions of unemployed soldiers. Not exactly a recipe for peace and prosperity.


This is the scenario that President Obama and Secretary Geithner are threatening. They claim that if the debt ceiling is not raised, they will have to immediately begin defaulting on Treasury interest payments. This is rather unlikely, as interest payments make up only 10% of spending, but let’s say they stop paying anyway.

If they do this, market interest rates for US debt would skyrocket, meaning the only buyer left at rates the Treasury could afford would be the Fed. In other words, if they default on August 2nd, QE3 will start on August 3rd. Of course, a default would be absolutely devastating to the dollar and a boon for gold and silver. Global confidence in the invincibility of the United States would be shattered, and the underlying problem of excessive spending would still remain to be addressed.

Another interesting scenario would be if Congress didn’t raise the debt ceiling and the Treasury just kept borrowing anyway. It’s not like the Executive Branch follows laws scrupulously nowadays. What if they just ignored it? Someone could challenge the act in federal courts, but the odds are often in the President’s favor. In this case, gold and silver might experience less of an initial spike, but their long-term prospects would be elevated as the world recognized that we were one step closer to becoming a banana republic.


This scenario is by far the most likely outcome of the debt talks in Washington; they will raise the debt ceiling and make spending cuts which sound substantial, but which only mange to slow the accumulation of new debt.

The plans on the table suggest cutting a couple trillion in cumulative spending over the next decade. In other words, they propose cuts that only reduce deficits by about 10-20%; they do nothing to reduce actual debt levels. So if these talks are successful, then instead of a $1.5 trillion deficit each year, perhaps we only suffer a $1.2 trillion deficit. Meanwhile, the debt continues growing. This is “success” in Washington.

Clearly, this is bullish for precious metals. It means more of the same – more spending, more debt, and necessarily more money-printing.


Over the past 50 years, the US debt ceiling has been raised over 70 times. In other words, there is no ceiling at all, it is as fictitious as the idea that central planning works, or that the US has anything resembling a “free market.”

So, I guess it stands to reason that regardless of the debt ceiling increase, it is likely that the US will be downgraded by one or more ratings agencies. The effect will be massive because the world’s largest pension, mutual, and sovereign wealth funds typically mandate investment only in AAA-rated securities. A downgrade of US debt means those funds must immediately sell off their primary reserve asset. The effect of this cannot be overstated, and gold would be the first and best refuge for an onslaught of orphaned capital.

Despite gold once again hitting new highs, I can only recommend my readers continue to keep a healthy portion of their portfolio in precious metals. Given the sad realities of the US fiscal and monetary situation, it’s prudent to assume that nothing will be solved by August 2nd.

by Peter Schiff 08/01/2011