First Solar Downturn?

In this Jan 2009 article, it mentioned that Palo Alto-based Ausra had laid off about 10 percent of its staff and planned to focus on being a technology and equipment supplier instead of independent power producer to begin immediately generating revenue.

The solar sector has seen widespread layoffs recently. Jiangsu-based PV manufacturer Suntech Power (NYSE: STP) confirmed it laid off 10 percent of its workforce, in part because it projected a decline in panel prices in 2009 of about 25 percent to 30 percent.

Hayward, Calif.-based OptiSolar laid off half its employees in Jan 2009 after it failed to raise a new round of funding. OptiSolar made headlines last year when it announced a deal with California utility Pacific Gas & Electric to build a $1 billion, 550MW thin-film solar plant. The company was seeking a loan from the US Department of Energy until it essentially ceased operations in Mar 2009 to find a buyer to take over operations.

Canada’s  Day4 Energy (TSX: DFE) announced layoffs for one-third of its staff, as it began to outsource production to Poland.

And in December 2008, solar cell equipment maker GT Solar announced plans to layoff 25 workers, or 8 percent off its staff, from its manufacturing plant in New Hampshire.

In Apr 2009, Switzerland’s Oerlikon Solar planned to layoff 60 employees and reduce the hours for 200 workers as it struggled with the economic slowdown. Oerlikon Solar reported 40% decline in orders and attributed it to problems with project financing.

OptiSolar isn’t the sole solar developer struggling during the economic downturn. In Mar 2009, Recurrent Energy nabbing the solar project assets of UPC Energy Group, estimated to be 350 MW. Fotowatio paid $20 million for the solar power assets of MMA Renewable Ventures. Solar-thermal developer eSolar raised $30 million in equity from ACME Group for a license to the technology and a 5 percent stake, a week after NRG Energy signed a $10 million deal to take an equity stake in eSolar and develop its 500 MW of solar projects.

According to EETimes, it said the reductions in government subsidies in Spain – a big market driver in 2008 – are a primary cause of the downturn in 2009. Spain accounted for a whopping 50% of worldwide PV installations in 2008 as installers tried to cash in on feed-in tariffs before a scheduled reduction in the subsidies. New and upgraded incentives for solar installations from nations including the US and Japan will not compensate for the Spanish pullback.

Comment: Is this the first solar downturn? With falling ASPs (average selling prices), excess inventory and funding freeze, will this be the first time the sun sets on the solar industry? Will the solar industry’s business cycles be similar to those highly cyclical semiconductory industry? While it seems to be, however, solar industry still depends mainly on large power infrastructures rather than retail consumers as in the semiconductor industry. This may provide more stability as world governments continue to focus on renewable energy policies to encourage alternative energy generation. See the case of China combating the solar downturn with subsidy here.

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