Blog Post

Solar shakeout continues: Q-Cells to file for bankruptcy

Q-Cells was once the largest solar cell maker in the world. Now the company says on Monday it will be filing for bankruptcy, which makes it the latest example of the solar industries’ turmoil.

The German company has been in trouble for some time and tried several cost-reduction measures to stay in business.  The decline has been a long-time coming and made worse by the particularly brutal solar market in 2011. Last year a global oversupply of solar panels, which are made up cells, led to an over-50 percent dive in solar panel prices and big losses for just about every solar cell and panel maker.

The price decline also prompted a trade complaint in the U.S. against Chinese silicon solar cell and panel makers, who have grown quickly to become dominant suppliers. The U.S. government hasn’t made a final decision on the trade case but has indicated that Chinese companies will have to pay tariffs – the question is how much.

American solar cell or panel makers who have filed for bankruptcy include Solyndra, Evergreen Solar, Spectrowatt and Energy Conversion Devices (Uni-Solar). First Solar (s FSLR) is idling several production lines in Germany. Abound Solar and Amonix suspended commercial production to change over factory equipment will allow them to roll out newer and better products.

Solar manufacturers have been looking for signs that the dark times are over, so it doesn’t help to see the fall of long-time manufacturers such as Q-Cells. Solar executives and analysts are predicting flat growth for 2012.

From top to bankruptcy

Q-Cells was the reigning cell maker back in 2008, but trouble began to brew that year when the financial market crashed and many of Q-Cells’ customers delayed taking deliveries of their orders. In December 2008, the company cut sales and production forecasts for 2008 and 2009. The company expected the market to rebound in the first half of 2009, but that didn’t happen. In August 2009, Q-Cells said it was cutting 500 jobs and working on reducing costs by 25 percent.

By the end of 2009, Q-Cells fell from the No. 1 spot to fourth place in the top 10 cell maker ranking, according to iSuppli. It stayed at the No. 4 spot in 2010, according to Solarbuzz, but didn’t make it to the top 10 list for 2011. Photon International, another market consulting firm, noted that 2011 was the first year in the past decade when the top 10 solar cell list didn’t include a European or Japanese company.

During that time, Q-Cells continued to struggle and cut costs. When it unveiled a restructuring plan in January this year, the company was aiming to return to financial health by 2014.

The company primarily makes silicon solar cells, though it also has a subsidiary called Solibro that makes solar thin films made of copper-indium-gallium-selenide. When the company was in better financial health, it was a big supporter of next-gen technologies like CIGS and cadmium-telluride thin films. It also put money into a process to refine a dirtier grade of silicon to make it suitable for making solar cells.

Q-Cells also became a project developer and last year won a deal to build two solar projects, totaling 30 MW, for Pacific Gas & Electric.

Photo courtesy of Q-Cells