Solar Markets In Turmoil

on May 03, 2012 at 8:00 AM

It is adjustment time for the solar sector, and that is putting it mildly.

The scale, and more important, speed of changes taking place within the energy sector are truly unprecedented. And the resulting surprises, making winner and losers out of the stakeholders in unexpected ways, are equally stunning.

In early April 2012, Solar Trust of America LLC, which was developing the world’s largest solar project – a 1,000 MW utility-scale power plant in Southern California – filed for bankruptcy protection after its majority owner began insolvency proceedings in Germany earlier. Since December 2011, several other established German solar manufacturers, including Q-Cells, Solon Energy and Solarhybrid, have filed for insolvency in German courts in quick succession.

The main reason is overly generous solar feed-in-tariff (FIT) subsidies, which the government has decided it can no longer sustain. While some readjustments were expected, the German government’s decision to slash PV subsidies, roughly in half from their 2009 highs and continue to reduce them gradually over time, surprised many suppliers.

As it happened, the German government’s new policies coincided with equally devastating falling price of PV panels flooding the market by low-cost Chinese manufacturers, with substantial subsidies from Chinese government, who over-estimated the global demand for PV modules. The result has been major upheavals in the solar business, which is likely to lead to consolidations and emergence of new suppliers who are capable of surviving the current turmoil.

In the case of Solar Trust of America, there is hope that someone will step in and salvage the project, somehow. NextEra Energy Resources LLC has been mentioned as a possibility.

The 1,000 MW solar project, under development near Blyth, CA, some 220 miles southeast of Los Angeles, was initially envisioned as a concentrating solar plant (CSP). It was subsequently converted to a PV project following the dramatic drop in PV module prices. Talking to reporters, David Lane, Blythe’s city manager, said, “My sense is that with the large investment in what was to have been the world’s largest solar power plant, someone somewhere will buy it and build it.”

Also in April – and not directly related to German solar meltdown – Oakland, CA based BrightSource Energy Inc., a company primarily focused on utility-scale CSP projects, decided to cancel its plans to go public through an initial public offering (IPO). The company cited weak market conditions. See more coverage of the canceled IPO here.

Weak market conditions may be an understatement. According to investment group Sanford C. Bernstein, the market capitalization of the top 12 global solar panel makers has plunged to $6.4 billion from a high of $70 billion in June 2008. The corresponding numbers for First Solar, once a rising star, are $2 billion vs. $20 billion in June 2008.

NRG Energy Inc., the lead investor in the 392 MW Ivanpah CSP project in California vouched for BrightSource, saying construction was proceeding and all was well. While reassuring, it was apparently not good enough for the proposed IPO.

Now is definitely not a good time for a solar IPO.