Who will survive the solar energy shakeout? The recession is squeezing solar energy firms. These four could thrive.
Margaret Price, July 29, 2009 (Christian Science Monitor)
Riding the crest of a wave of technological advances, a boom in silicon processing and ever more aggressive incentives, the solar energy industry grew at ~50% per year for most of the first decade of this century.
Then came the over extension of a feed-in tariff in Spain. Then came the worldwide economic downturn and a contraction of capital to finance projects and government revenues to support incentives. Then came a re-supply of silicon.
~250 companies in the world make photovoltaic modules. Most solar energy industry analysts expect a sharp consolidation. One astute expert predicts there will be no more than “a couple of dozen” in 5 years.
From USA Today. (click to enelarge)
Because solar panels are expensive and are purchased on the assumption they will provide 20-to-25 years or more of service, one of the key factors in a solar energy company’s staying power is its customers’ faith that it will be around to honor its warranties. (See SOLAR CONSOLIDATION for more on this factor.)
(click to enelarge)
One reporter found a consensus of experts predicting First Solar Inc., SunPower Corp., Sharp Corp. and SunTech Power Holdings – because of the size of their operations, the strength of their financial backing, their market performance to date and/or their already-demonstrated staying power – will be among the winners in the consolidation.
First Solar Inc has been in business 10 years, has been one of the 50 fastest growing businesses – not solar businesses, businesses of any kind – in the U.S. for the last 3 years and is the world’s biggest thin film solar panel manufacturer. Facilitated by First Solar’s production efficiency, its cadmium telluride (CdTe) formulation is emerging as the dominant thin film technology. Estimates suggest it is taking about half of the U.S. utility solar market right now.
click thru to First Solar
SunPower Corp is the biggest solar provider in North America and has been in business since 1985. It specializes in the more time-tested, silicon-based types of solar panels. A recent drop in the cost of refined silicon is putting SunPower’s more efficient panels back in competition with the cheaper thin film panels from First Solar.
click thru to SunPower
Suntech Power Holdings, founded in 2001, is the newest of the big players. It is the biggest manufacturer of silicon photovoltaic (PV) panels in the world. Its $1.9 billion in capital is just the beginning of its financial strength. It is essentially as strong as China’s banking system. In 2008, to move on the U.S. market, Suntech formed Gemini Solar Development Company LLC, a joint venture with solar developer Renewable Ventures. Gemini was bought by Spanish power producer Fotowatio. The group recently moved into Texas, signing onto a 30-megawatt project for Austin Energy, probably the most progressive and respected U.S. municipal utility. Anticipating the boom in utility demand for solar panels, Gemini is also planning a U.S. manufacturing facility.
click thru to SunTech Power Holdings
Sharp Corp is the éminence grise of the solar industry. Founded in 1912 as a metalworking business, it has a history of making electronic products matched by few companies in the world. It began researching solar cells in 1961 and mass-producing them in 1963. It was a world-leading solar company until Japan dialed back its subsidies in the wake of its economic struggles. With a new push by the Japanese government to expand its domestic solar capacity, Sharp is expected to soon once again be one of the world’s top solar producers. In the process, it is transitioning from the rooftop silicon-based solar panels it first designed into home rooftop systems in 1995 to the thin film concept it first began studying in 1974.
click thru to Sharp
Unlike the wind industry, which long ago settled on the 3-blade turbine as its preferred technology and now focuses almost exclusively on making the 3-blade turbine bigger and better, the solar energy industry continues to nurture competing technologies for varying purposes.
There are solar hot water systems that directly heat water pipes and solar power plants that use mirrors to concentrate the heat of the sun. But the largest segment of the solar energy industry, and reportedly the fastest growing segment, is the solar photovoltaic (PV) industry. Unlike hot water and power plant systems that capture and use the sun’s heat to make energy, PV technology turns the sun’s light into electricity.
From Emerging Energy Research. (click to enelarge)
Even within the PV sector there are competing technologies. First Solar’s cadmium telluride thin film is only one of several thin film formulations. SunPower makes traditional silicon-based panels but silicon of varying grades and purities can also be used to make thin film modules.
Thin film panels are less efficient than traditional silicon-based panels, meaning they turn less of the sunlight that hits them into electricity. But they are cheaper to make. It was the lower cost that allowed First Solar's $348.3 million in 2008 profits to be double its 2007 earnings.
Energy analysts consider First Solar the model of a company managing breakthrough technology. It lowered its production cost to a world-record 93 cents per watt this year while maintaining its profit margins and sustaining full production capacity, demonstrating why it is expected to sustain its market share despite increasing competition from other thin film manufacturers and other thin film formulas.
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SunPower is all about efficiency. It claims 50% more efficiency than other traditional, crystalline silicon-based panels and 100-to-300% more efficiency than thin films. It promises an even higher-efficiency (23.4%) “Generation 3” panel in 2010. This makes SunPower panels the way to take advantage of that sweet spot on a rooftop where the sun is strongest longest.
Partly as a result of heavy bets on the European solar markets where subsidies have been rolled back and installations have slowed, SunPower lost money in the first quarter of 2008. It did, though, maintain high revenues. Thanks to the falling cost of silicon, the company is expected to bounce back later in the year by bringing its production costs down.
Sharp has, in its time, produced 2 GIGAwatts of crystalline silicon solar panels, a quarter of the world’s total capacity. Yet it is basing its return to the thick of world solar energy industry competition on the ability of its megacorporate-sized R&D team to develop a competitive amorphous silicon-based thin film formula. It has already built 160-megawatts of manufacturing capacity, has a 480-megawatt plant planned to come online early in 2010 and intends to take half the world thin film market by 2012.
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SunTech Power Holdings is the newest of this group of survivor companies, but it is very well financed. More importantly, it has access to China’s enormous, low-wage work force and is driven by a newly announced government goal to build 20 GIGAwatts of solar energy generating capacity by 2020. Because of the always mind-boggling numbers China is capable of delivering, SunTech Holding’s big challenge is to be able to handle its growth. So far, it has demonstrated it can.
It has incurred a high level of debt while building a gigawatt of production capacity since just 2001, yet it continues to steadily develop its high efficiency monocrystalline and polycrystalline Pluto technologies, which it has moved to 19% (mono) and 17% (poly) efficiencies. And with the enormous government mandate for capacity driving it, debt is not expected to significantly hamper the company’s ability to find financing either from China’s cash-rich banks or from other investors.
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- Travis Bradford, president, Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development: “In five years, there probably can be only a couple of dozen of them…At most.”
- Matthew Patsky, portfolio manager, Winslow Green Mutual Funds: “There’s no doubt in my mind that First Solar offers the industry’s best quality management and the best quality product at the best relative value…”
- Ken Zweibel, director, George Washington University Solar Institute: “Thin films came into production during the boom period in the industry’s growth, which allowed for higher-risk new technology. But First Solar was the only one to establish itself successfully during that boom…”
- Shyam Mehta, senior solar analyst, GTM Research: “[First Solar]is the only company in the world that’s been able to produce solar modules at less than $1 per watt…And [it] is on its way to producing solar electricity at rates competitive with electricity from fossil fuels.”
From Lux Research. (click to enlarge)
- Julie Blunden, vice president of public policy and corporate communications, SunPower: “We have made commitments to our investors and customers that we would lower our cost of solar-system installation 50 percent between 2006 and 2012…By 2010, we’ll be two-thirds of the way [there]…”
- Bradford: “From its parent, [Sharp Solar] has an extraordinary amount of resources…[It] can deploy engineers and process capital on a scale that none of the rest of these companies can.”
- Steve Chadima, vice president for external affairs, SunTech Holding: “Our real strength is our ability to deliver products at very low cost that are also very high quality…”