Mike Ahearn, chairman of the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels, had every reason to party in September. That’s when his company, First Solar, based in Tempe, Ariz., was picked by China to build what promises to be the world’s biggest solar-electricity plant: a Manhattan-size facility in Inner Mongolia providing 2 gigawatts of power, about twice the size of a large coal plant or average nuclear power station. But the Chinese facility will take years to build, and the party buzz subsided pretty quickly. The next month, Wall Street analysts downgraded First Solar’s stock after the company missed its third-quarter revenue target. "I think the Wall Street perspective is pretty short-term," says Ahearn.
That’s true, but it’s also true that, while photovoltaic cells that turn sunlight into electricity may play a potentially vital role in weaning the world from fossil fuels, a transition will take decades — and the business metrics surrounding the solar-power industry currently are anything but bright. After a period of rapid expansion, panel manufacturers today are reeling from a pronounced supply surplus, falling prices and stagnating sales. In 2009, industry revenue plunged by nearly 40% to about $25 billion from $40 billion the previous year, according to BankAmerica Merrill Lynch alternative-energy analyst Steven Milunovich. Solar-panel output far outstripped demand last year; manufacturers made 66% more product than they were able to sell, estimates research firm iSuppli located in El Segundo, Calif. Some analysts believe the dismal conditions will persist into 2011, setting up marginal players worldwide for failure. "A large number of manufacturers will not survive," says Paul Semenza, an analyst with research company DisplaySearch, based in San Jose, Calif.
The global glut has been building for a number of years as hundreds of solar cell and panel start-ups, attracted by a potential boom in alternative energy as oil prices climbed and by government solar-energy-subsidy programs, swarmed into the market. Because the industry’s barriers to entry are relatively low — crystalline solar cells are rudimentary semiconductors that are comparatively easy to make — the number of solar-panel and photovoltaic suppliers mushroomed nearly tenfold from 2002, when there were about 80 manufacturers, to somewhere between 500 and 800 today, according to iSuppli. In China and Taiwan, whole solar-energy sectors sprouted almost overnight. Stefan de Haan, an analyst for iSuppli, says industry profit margins,…
Industry fundamentals are looking pretty bad for solar.
After enjoying a few years of tight supply, far too much solar production capacity is coming online as a result.
Government policy hasn’t helped either. For 2009, half of total solar production might not even be sold due a change in government policy from a major solar buyer, Spain.
WSJ: Spain accounted for more than 40% of all new solar panel installation globally last year, installing 2.7 gigawatts — five times the 2007 figure — out of a global total of 5.6 gigawatts. According to Spain’s photovoltaic industry association, Asif, the country’s market was worth €16.38 billion ($23.24 billion). This year, with cuts to aid and a more complicated application process, there has been no new installation in Spain.
Other countries are introducing aid to the solar sector, particularly the U.S. But the new U.S. measures aren’t expected to arrive in time to shore up demand this year. And while China has pledged support for the solar industry via economic-stimulus packages, support is likely to primarily benefit its own low-cost producers that have easy access to credit from state-owned Chinese banks.
Even based on bullish Barlcays numbers shown below, supply is likely to oustrip demand by 30-40% for many years. This could collapse prices down to merely the cost of production… or worse.
Sahm Adrangi: Currently, there is too much supply in all the steps. There is too much polysilicon. There are too many wafers. There are too may solar cells and there are too many modules. The oversupply began in 4Q08, and has only become more exacerbated as time has gone on. Polysilicon prices have crashed from about $400/kg to about $70/kg. Marginal cost is estimated to be around $35 to $45/kg, and I’ll bet that prices will get there soon enough.
Perhaps companies such as Suntech (STP), Yingli (YGE), SunPower (SPWRA), and even First Solar (FSLR), despite its technology advantage, could be in for a long, nasty price war.
I’ve been a long time investor in the solar space (circa late 06) and one thing that has really irked me over the years is the complete lack of differentiation. Much like the market as a whole nowadays, its "all or nothing" in this space. The one exception has been First Solar (FSLR) – an American "thin film" (different technology than most solar companies) producer. The Chinese names have especially all been thrown together in one pot and when its time to run up solar, they all go up together (in varying degrees) and when solar is out of favor they all get pole axed. Hence doing any due diligence is really a waste of time.
Yingli Green Energy (YGE) and a company that has cost me many real (and virtual) dollars over the years, Trina Solar (TSL) are 2 of the Chinese solar markets with good size, and the most integrated production models. This should have differentiated them over the years – but as I said above, not in American investors eyes. We like "big easy to understand, sweeping themes" – i.e. oil up, solar good. And that’s as comprehensive as it seems to get.
We are seeing some nice action in both these names today, on the back of an analyst report which is alluding to the advantages the two companies have. Now that silicon (which is the main cost component on the material side) has swooned after bottlenecks plagued the industry for 3+ years, the other main cost is labor. And you are not going to compete with the Chinese on labor costs…
Both Trina Solar (TSL) and Yingli Green Energy(YGE) shares are trading higher today following upgrades by Morgan Stanley analyst Sunil Gupta. He thinks both companies are going to take market share in the solar sector from U.S.-based and European rivals. Here are the details
First Solar (FSLR) gave an "impressive" presentation yesterday at its investor/analyst meeting about the future of its business, but it wasn’t enough to make analysts feel better about the stock.
We’ve received analyst reports morning from FBR, Deutsche Bank and Cannaccord Adams. Here’s their summaries:
Canaccord Adams downgraded from Buy to Hold with a $180 price target with a 25x multiple of its 2009 EPS estimate.
IMPACT: Modestly negative. First Solar remains the leading solar company, in our opinion; however, the company issued fairly ambitious targets with respect to the project pipeline and technology advances, and a lack of visibility into further positive catalysts remains. Additionally, the company’s business model and financial model are changing fairly significantly. As we suspected, the company’s new focus will lower GMs but likely increase income in absolute terms. While the company has finally properly set expectations, we believe that the decreasing margin profile may turn some investors off until the higher income and cash flows actually materialize.
FBR has an underperform rating with a $110 price target with 5X EV/sales and 12x EV/EBITDA, versus the its peer group (SPWRA, STP, TSL, YGE) average of 1.5x EV/sales and 8x EV/EBITDA.
We walked away from the First Solar (FSLR) analyst event impressed with the quality of presentation and the company’s long-term vision, which was communicated clearly, We continue to believe that First Solar is among a few industry leaders that have sound long-term and short-term strategies based on the realities of the industry. However, in light of the fact that the company has now publicly acknowledged that the business model is changing (revenue mix has changed from one item to three separate items), we think there is an increased probability of a capital increase (to beef up the balance sheet), while challenges remain in the near term (excess inventories, customer insolvency, tight credit market) that are the most important factors, which, in our view, will pressure the stock for the remainder of CY09. Additionally, we walked away feeling incrementally confident that the consensus estimates are too aggressive and do not reflect the realities of the industry.
Deutsche Bank maintains its hold rating raising its price target to $170 from $167, with a 20x C2010 EPS valuation.
Someone is trying to knock First Solar (FSLR) off its perch by tipping investigators that its OptiSolar acquisition might not be above board.
A private citizen told California investigators to check out the land rights First Solar said it acquired when it paid $400 million in stock for OptiSolar’s project pipeline. When the deal was announced, First Solar said it received "strategic land rights of approximately 136,000 acres." In reality, OptiSolar only had applications for the land rights.
Applications are considerably less valuable. If First Solar labeled those applications as assets, and priced them into the acquisition, then the company may be in violation of the law. At this point, it’s unclear if First Solar did or did not label them as assets. It’s also unclear if it’s illegal to price them into the deal, reports Dow Jones.
In spite of the haze around this minor infraction, it’s receiving a decent amount of coverage. Major news outlets are reporting on it as well as most energy/solar focused blogs.
Our intial reaction was that this was much ado about nothing. The Bureau Of Land Managment in California is worried about speculators paying for applications, holding them, then selling them to developers at higher prices. We don’t consider First Solar a speculator, so we thought it was long shot that they were violating the law.
While developing a project is not First Solar’s typical operating pattern, it is a direction the company is heading. In the relase announcing the OptiSolar acquisition, First Solar mentioned other construction projects it was working on. For this reason, we don’t think First Solar plans on just selling off its application permits.
We are curious about the identity of the "private citizen" that tipped investigators. After news broke that First Solar was under investigation, Earth2Tech reported that:
A couple weeks ago we received an email query from an exec at an environmental group wondering about the legality and ethics of solar maker OptiSolar incorporating yet-to-be-approved Bureau of Land Management land applications into its price when solar giant First Solar agreed to acquire the thin-film PV company back in March. I’m not sure how legal it is, I told him, but I would assume
WASHINGTON D.C. – On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI and the SEC are investigating Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) for his lucrative stock trades of real estate investment giant CBL Associates Properties, a real estate company based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Federal officials...
The Latest Conference Board Leading Economic Index (LEI) for April was released yesterday, but we failed to post usual our update. Here it is ... a day late. The index increased 0.6 percent to 123.9 from March's downwardly revised 123.1 (previously 123.4) and small downward revisions were made to January 123.2 to 123.0) and December (123.4 to 123.3). The latest indicator value came in above the 0.4 percent forecast by Investing.com.
Here is an overview from the LEI technical press release:
The Conference Board LEI for the U.S. increased in April, wi...
Ed Rensi, an Ex-McD CEO, insists that a "$35,000 robotic arm" is cheaper than hiring and training employees. According to Rensi, replacing employees with robots is cheaper - for McDonald's. Of course, the move to robotics is not necessarily "cheaper" for everyone else - e.g., taxpayers - who will ultimately absorb the costs that McDonald's shifts off its books.
For purposes of argument, I'm accepting: 1) Robots are cheaper, and will probably continue to get cheaper. 2) Higher minimum wages will increase the incentive to replace human employees with robots. 3)...
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Do you remember when you were growing up and all your friends were allowed Atari game consoles but you weren’t?
Well, I do and the things seemed as foreign to me as Venus. Mostly because the little time I managed to spend on the gaming consoles when my friends weren’t hogging them I found it all a bit silly. I never “got” computer games, and to this day still have poor comprehension of things like Angry Birds.
I suspect that many people around the world view Bitcoin in the same way as I view Angry Birds: with mild amusement and a general lack of understanding as to what the hell all the fuss is about.
I was thinking of this since a buddy of mine recently started ...
After a three-year bull run that more than quadrupled its value by its peak last July, IBD’s Medical-Biomed/Biotech Industry Group plunged 50% by early February, hurt by backlashes against high drug prices and mergers that seek to lower corporate taxes.
Although we try to stay focused on finding and managing promising trade ideas, the comments in the comment section sometimes take a political turn (for access, try PSW — click here!). So today, Jean Luc writes,
The GOP debate last night was just unreal – are these people running to be president of the US or to lead a college fraternity! Comparing tool size? The only guy that looks semi-sane is Kasich. The other guys are just like 3 jackals right now.
And something else – if Trump is the candidate, that little Romney speech yesterday is probably already being made into a commercial. And all these little snippets from the debate will also make some nice ads! If you are a conservative, you have to be scared now.
Phil writes back,
I was expecting them to start throwing poop at each other &n...
This is a non-trading topic, but I wanted to post it during trading hours so as many eyes can see it as possible. Feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
Last fall there was some discussion on the PSW board regarding setting up a YouCaring donation page for a PSW member, Shadowfax. Since then, we have been looking into ways to help get him additional medical services and to pay down his medical debts. After following those leads, we are ready to move ahead with the YouCaring site. (Link is posted below.) Any help you can give will be greatly appreciated; not only to help aid in his medical bill debt, but to also show what a great community this group is.
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