NEW TRIPOLI, USA: Have economic conditions improved for solar cell manufacturers or just changed in the past six months are questions detailed a the report: Opportunities in The Solar Market For Crystalline and Thin Film Solar Cells, published by The Information Network.
On November 18, 2008, we issued a press release entitled “Six Reasons for Cloudy Skies on the Solar Energy Industry”. All six issues presented cast a partial eclipse of the solar market.
Subsequently, a week later we forecast that the solar market would drop from 40 percent growth to 25 percent growth in 2009. At that time, thoughts of a downturn in the luminous market were considered a heresy and comments to the article reflected the attitude of the time -– up, up, up!
Six months have gone by and its time to revisit these issues to see if anything has changed from a fundamental standpoint. The original issues presented are repeated, along with an update on the current environment:
1. With oil at $60 a barrel, who cares about alternative energy? It's a short sighted view, but with the credit market crunch, who can get a loan to build solar plants anyway?
Oil is now $70 a barrel and rising, which to us suggests that people will start rethinking alternative energy. But the second point about the credit market crunch remains. Who can get a loan to build a solar plant anyway?
2. The high price of oil in the past year was a catalyst for development in other alternative energy sources, not just solar. Advances in wind, geothermal, and hydropower energy are reducing the cost of wind power to a point at which it is becoming competitive with traditional energy sources.
Nuclear power plants smaller than a garden shed and able to power 20,000 homes will be on sale within five years, say scientists at Los Alamos, the US government laboratory which developed the first atomic bomb. Among these alternative energy sources, hydropower and nuclear have the lowest carbon footprints (carbon dioxide produced during operation).
Other alternative energy programs have been affected by the downturn. Most serious was the recent announcement by President Obama that he was terminating the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository. This decision gives nuclear power an uncertain future, which may be a benefit to the solar energy.
3. Spain, a huge buyer of solar, reduced its incentive program to aid buyers in 2009. In California, a seemingly green state, Prop. 7 was defeated in the November election with a whopping 65 percent of the voters saying NO. One reason: electricity consumers would pay 10 percent above market rates for renewable power forever.
Spain has not resumed its incentive program and will subsidize just 500 megawatts of solar projects this year, down sharply from 2,400 megawatts in 2008. Mainland China’s stimulus and now Taiwan’s incentives (we suspect money coming in from Mainland China) will counter the downturn in Spain and Germany.
4. The spot market price of 6-inch solar-grade wafers have fallen to $9 from a high of $12.50 in September. This bodes poorly for thin film makers and equipment suppliers.
The thin film solar panel market and hence the equipment market grew strongly because of the shortage of polysilicon. Now that polysilicon is abundant and lower priced, why make thin film panels with 8% efficiency when you get 16+ percent efficiency with silicon wafers?
The spot market price of 6-inch solar-grade wafers has now dropped to below US$3.50 per unit. Winners are the environment and polysilicon solar manufacturers. Losers are the thin film solar manufacturers unless they can achieve a way of increasing efficiency, such as a thin film nano coating being developed by SolarPA in Pennsylvania.
5. Utilization is at only 56 percent. Our analysis of 103 solar manufacturers shows that panel production capacity in 2009 will be 15 GW whereas only 8.3 GW will be sold.
Utilization has not worsened as solar companies are struggling to sell products and new capacity has been put on hold, particularly in Asia.
While polysilicon prices have dropped, solar cell manufacturers are also experiencing a 25 percent drop in revenues in 2009 from last year. The drop in solar cell prices to below $1.50 per watt is not increasing demand, which we forecast last year.
6. The dollar has appreciated strongly against the euro by nearly 25 percent. Germany is the world's largest PV market. US solar companies have had to adjust selling prices to generate sales, reducing profit margins.
On November 18, 2008, 1 Euro was equal to US$1.269. On June 15, 2009, 1 Euro was equal to US$1.385, an appreciation in the Euro of 9 percent. Large, but insignificant in light of the overall economic issues currently facing Europe.
In the past six months we have seen somewhat of a stabilization in the worldwide economies and the share prices of solar companies ramp in recent weeks.
In fundamental terms, while there have been changes in these 6 issues, there are no overriding factors to change our forecast of a downturn in the solar industry through 2009 with demand resuming in 2010 back to a 40 percent growth we projected last year.