A man standing in front of a large array of solar panels. He has short hair, a light beard, and is wearing a dark business suit with a white shirt
Place in the sun: Jan Kameníček founded Raylyst Solar in 2018. Between 2019 and 2022, the company achieved annual compound growth of 824.2%, with revenues of €111mn in 2022 © Jan Berounsky

Raylyst Solar, a Czech wholesaler of Chinese solar panels, is Europe’s fastest-growing company, according to this year’s FT 1000 ranking — underscoring China’s dominance of the sector and the failure of local manufacturers to compete.

Prague-based Raylyst distributes Chinese solar panels and other photovoltaic equipment in Europe, with Germany now its biggest market, having overtaken the Czech Republic last year. And it is the strength of the continent’s demand for renewable power, spurred by the transition away from fossil fuels, that has pushed the company to the top of this year’s FT ranking of businesses by revenue growth.

Between 2019 and 2022, Raylyst achieved annual compound growth of 824.4 per cent, reporting revenues of €111mn in that final year.

But its success comes as the European sector is “facing an existential threat”, according to the European Solar Manufacturing Council (ESMC), an industry group. Last month, the group wrote to the European Commission calling for emergency support from Brussels.

Europe currently produces less than 3 per cent of the panels needed to reach its 2030 target for solar power. Since August, eight companies in the European solar supply chain have either filed for bankruptcy, paused production, warned of factory closures, or restructured debts, according to industry association SolarPower Europe. The ESMC expects more to follow, but Brussels has hinted that state assistance is unlikely.

Raylyst founder and chief executive Jan Kameníček acknowledges the difficulties European manufacturers face in competing with China and says he would welcome a chance to support them more — but not under current market conditions. 

“Everybody knows that 95 per cent of photovoltaic production is from China,” he explains. The European and US manufacturers “don’t have enough stock, their price is too high, and they are not able to supply smaller companies”.

Kameníček launched Raylyst six years ago, aged 21, after recognising China’s potential as a leader in renewables. At the time, he had been helping “destroy the planet”, in his words, as an intern at a Singapore commodities house buying coal for Chinese power plants.

The job paid well and taught him about Asia’s energy market. “I was seeing the trend of fossil fuels and coal going down,” Kameníček recalls. “I didn’t like that we were basically burning coal to turn on the lights.”

Homesick, Kameníček left Singapore after less than a year — and his return to Prague coincided with the EU’s removal, in 2018, of anti-dumping duties on imports of Chinese solar panels. He saw this as his chance to turn his nascent interest in renewables into a business. 

Jan Kameníček standing beside a container. In the background is a rail track with various shipping containers
China question: Jan Kameníček warns against trade barriers, having launched Raylyst on the back of the axing of EU anti-dumping duties © Jan Berounsky

As part of this plan, he had samples of Chinese photovoltaic products — sourced at Hong Kong’s electronics fair — tested at a Czech technology university. 

“I wanted to know whether what these [Chinese] suppliers were claiming was real — I, myself, didn’t know much,” Kameníček says. “It was quite challenging for me, but I was studying a lot by myself about the product and the business, to understand how the market was functioning.”

His first contract was with DAH Solar, a Chinese manufacturer seeking a route for sales to Europe. Using a leased warehouse outside Prague, and containers that he bought with money borrowed from his father, he started supplying Chinese panels to local installers. 

Raylyst now also sells products made by some of the world’s biggest panel manufacturers, including Chinese industry leaders, such as Longi Green Energy Technology, JA Solar and Trina Solar.

Six years ago, “there wasn’t really competition,” says Kameníček. “[Chinese companies] didn’t have distribution partners in our region . . . and they were actually helping us to grow” by extending credit lines, he explains. “Now, it would be impossible to start with those large brands because they have such extreme demand.”

Although Raylyst has all of its 45 employees in the Czech Republic, the group transports most of its Chinese panels directly from the Dutch port of Rotterdam to customers in Germany and elsewhere. It also operates a warehouse in Koper, Slovenia, to distribute panels in Italy and Austria. 

The Covid-19 pandemic even helped Raylyst to catch up with larger wholesalers, Kameníček says.

“For us, as a small company, [the pandemic] was kind of an advantage because we were able to supply the customer without having to meet each other — it was all about logistics,” he explains.

Before the Covid-19 lockdowns, “our problem was visiting the customers, having customer relationships”. At the same time, the pandemic forced bigger rivals to restructure and absorb the cost of laying off sales staff.

Now, the potential problem is western countries seeking to de-risk their supply chains. Longi warned last month that the US and Europe could slow the decarbonisation of their economies if they impose new trade restrictions on China and limit its role in their renewable energy supply chains.

Having set up Raylyst on the back of the removal of EU anti-dumping duties, Kameníček is equally opposed to a return to trade barriers. He also warns against presenting China’s dominance in solar panel production as a security risk: “Modules are not intelligent devices,” he points out. “They cannot be controlled. So I don’t see any real danger.” 

China produces about 70 per cent of the metallurgical-grade silicon used to make solar wafers and is expected to continue to supply cheaper panels than western competitors, also thanks to large subsidies from Beijing. To avoid bankruptcy, European companies will therefore need bigger and better targeted state subsidies, Kameníček argues — because “there is no other way they can survive against those gigantic companies in China that mine their own material”.

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