Solar sector faces power struggle

May 9, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Verona

Published: May 9 2010

The world’s photovoltaic industry is heading for a shake-out with big Chinese and US manufacturers of solar modules competing for dominance in Europe as smaller companies suffer from a collapse of prices and lower subsidies.

Executives speaking at the Italian PV Summit and trade fair in Verona last week were heartened by higher forecasts of demand for solar power made by the Paris-based International Energy Agency but they also warned of the dangers of a bubble forming in fast-growing Italy following the bursting of the Spanish market last year.

“We will see more consolidation of players, leaving a handful of very large manufacturers,” said David Hogg, head of European operations for China’s Suntech Power which plans to increase output to 1,250MW in 2010 from 700MW last year and is developing a new generation of high-efficiency Pluto panels.

“As the industry matures only those with a low cost base will be left,” he said, stressing the importance of economies of scale.

A collapse of some 50 per cent in module prices over the past 18 months has left some companies vulnerable, particularly in Germany where Anton Milner resigned in March as chief executive of Q-Cells, formerly the world’s largest solar cell producer, after what he called “very dramatic negative figures” for 2009.

TK Kallenbach, vice-president of Arizona-based First Solar, which says it is the world’s largest solar thin-film module maker, said analogies could be made with the periodic consolidations in the history of the car industry.

“Scale is important,” he told the Financial Times. “There is a value to have a globally relevant capacity in gigawatts.”

Asked if First Solar was on the acquisitions trail, he replied: “We are watching the industry. We will see. We are not shopping for particular people.”

Ingmar Wilhelm, vice-president of Enel’s renewables division, said the Italian utility did not intend to take part in the expected consolidation process. Enel is investing with Sharp of Japan and STMicroelectronics, a joint Italian-French company, in a plant in Sicily to produce modules using the latest triple-junction thin-film technology.

Executives spoke of the “pain” and “turbulence” in the solar modules market last year and stressed the importance of governments, particularly Italy, making sustainable, long-term decisions on feed-in tariffs – the subsidies paid for the electricity produced as the industry moves towards “grid parity” where its prices are competitive with other sources.

Mr Kallenbach said that on balance the danger this year was one of undersupply rather than overcapacity. “The global market is coming back,” he said.

As Chinese companies such as Suntech and Yingli Green Energy make inroads into Europe, there is frustration that China has been slow in opening its own market to foreigners.

Stuart Brannigan, head of Yingli Green Energy in Europe, said the Chinese government was spending $9bn a month on renewable energy development and was working on establishing feed-in tariffs. “China will become a much much bigger market in two to three years. It is in its infancy,” he said, stressing that China wanted to learn from foreign companies.

But First Solar said it did not see China making a decision on feed-in tariffs until next year. Asked if China was playing fair, Mr Kallenbach said First Solar was trying to encourage China to open its markets but for the moment it was choosing the path of concessionary bidding where companies offer a price for the solar power they can produce.

He noted that the same process had been used in China’s wind sector but that it had not opened to foreign suppliers.

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