It is an understatement to say solar tech companies have suffered in 2011. The year has been marked by financial losses, layoffs, factory closures, trade complaints and bankruptcies afflicting solar manufacturers in the U.S., Europe and Asia. The drama will continue in 2012, and here is a look at what to expect next year.
1. Lining up the right dance partners. Raising more private equity means diluting share values, but many next-gen thin film startups remain in the perilous stage of entering mass production at a time when demand lags. They need money and more. We have already seen some of them lining up corporate investors — such as ambitious Korean conglomerates — who also can help them with technology development and sales and marketing. HelioVolt was rescued by SK Group, and GreenVolt found help from ABB. Others, such as MiaSole, are still searching.
2. Buyer’s market. For companies with financial muscles, it’s a good time to invest in solar, be it taking a share in a tech company or a power project. Many big energy companies have done just that, from Exelon in the U.S. to Total in France. Google got rid of its solar research effort but has made some big investments in solar power projects this year, including the $94 million in four solar projects near Sacramento, Calif., that it announced last week. There are many firsts. Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings is buying its first solar farm and has agreed to purchase a 49 percent stake in a second one. Investment firm KKR made its first renewable energy investment in the U.S. by putting an undisclosed sum in the same Sacramento-area solar farm. Hey, maybe we will see Chinese oil giants gobbling up some solar and wind projects abroad.
3. Game over. We know of seven companies that have declared bankruptcy or have shuttered their solar businesses. Energy Conversion Devices temporarily suspended production last month and is doing massive layoffs, and though it hasn’t filed for bankruptcy or otherwise announced its exit, the company’s prospects are bleak. If there are truly hundreds of solar panel manufacturers in China, then many of them won’t live much longer, and some should have expired by now. The Chinese government’s own research recently concluded that the number of domestic solar panel makers could fall to 15 before this decade is over. LDK Solar, a silicon producer that has added solar cell and panel manufacturing in recent years, is one of the struggling Chinese companies. Wells Fargo recently dropped its coverage of LDK because the solar company no longer presented “a viable solar investment.”
Although some of the high-profile U.S. solar startups have lined up big investors, as we mentioned earlier, their survival is far from assured, and, well, Solyndra won’t be the only big VC-backed solar investment that flames out.
4. New entrants keep on coming. Sure, times are tough now, but the solar market is supposed to grow and grow, right? So here you have Foxconn Technology Group, the world’s largest contract
maker of consumer electronics such as the iPhone, plotting its entry into the solar market and planning on starting trial production next year. Other solar manufacturers should be worried, because solar panels are commodities and margins are shrinking quickly. Foxconn will join some of the largest consumer electronics makers that also have vowed to become major solar manufacturers: Samsung and LG (and Sharp and Panasonic already are big players in solar).
Although government incentives have played a key role in boosting the solar market growth, they are falling, drying up or changing too often, and many project developers and installers are looking forward to the day when they can build without subsidies (meaning they can do it more cheaply).
5. Changing strategy. It is interesting to see how companies change their strategies during tough times. We have seen more money devoted to boosting the sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiencies by companies that have historically spent more heavily on expanding factories to drive down costs. First Solar, which is laying off workers and throttling back its factory expansion plans, is undergoing a major strategy shift to focus on projects that serve utilities and in markets that aren’t so driven by government subsidies. All eyes will be on First Solar to see how it plans to tackle that in 2012.
6. The bane of election year politics. The U.S. is the third-largest solar market in the world, and it still has a lot of room to grow. The growth so far has been propped up by government incentives, and the expiration of a key federal subsidy this month and an ongoing trade complaint against Chinese manufacturers have stoked worries of a slower increase in installations in 2012. Add that to the fact that Republicans and Democrats both are trying to show who can manage the country’s finances better and cut spending. Getting more government help in 2012 will be as difficult as getting Newt Gingrich to be humble.
7. Emerging markets. China and India have been among the most-talked-about new markets this year, and the conversation will continue. But we also will hear more about other, lesser-known markets such as the Middle East and Africa, where the necessary ingredients for solar development — money and interest from utilities and government — are increasing. Latin America is starting to show signs of solar power development activities, though they are tiny still.
8. What will the IPO market bring? Not much. This year has proven a terrible time for making that public market debut. Companies that filed this year to go public, such as BrightSource Energy and Enphase Energy, are waiting for the right time. Until we see successful solar IPOs in the U.S. — and it’s been a while — very few will try their luck.
9. Beyond solar. Some solar installers see opportunities in the emergence of electric cars — both businesses promote their cleantech cred and sell to consumers directly. Companies such as REC Solar and SolarCity are selling electric car charging stations (SolarCity has erected solar power charging stations for Tesla owners). Automakers such as General Motors and Nissan are building electric car charging stations that use solar power. Up until now, solar retailers have largely focused on selling solar energy equipment and installation services. But as they grow in size and generate more money, they might want to diversify to offer other cleantech equipment and services.
10. Solar’s impact on the grid. The increase in solar energy generation has nudged utilities and electric grid regulators to give more thought and investment to the impact of solar in their mission to deliver electricity reliably. Since solar production can ebb and surge depending on the time of the day and the weather, new technologies and policies are cropping up to monitor solar energy production and minimize interruptions of power delivery. Storing solar energy in batteries and discharging it into the grid when needed is one solution that is being considered or tested in pilot projects. Inverters will play a greater role in regulating solar power’s flow into the grid. Some of the technologies already exist because of technical requirements in Germany, and they will make their way into the U.S.
Photos from GigaOM, First Solar, Enphase Energy, Duke Energy, Solaria