A run of poor earnings has dampened confidence in once-booming solar companies.
Shares in LDK Solar, a Chinese solar manufacturer, fell by 18 percent today after the company reported a larger than expected second-quarter loss.
Shares in JA Solar, another Chinese company, fell nearly 8 percent today after its earnings report on Wednesday; the company’s revenue dropped by 51 percent compared with a year earlier.
For manufacturers, the problem largely boils down to a sharp drop in panel prices amid increased supply and tighter demand. Panel prices have fallen by close to 40 percent from their peak last spring, estimates Chris Whitman, the president of U.S. Solar Finance, which helps arrange bank financing for solar projects.
“Obviously a ton of production, mostly Chinese, has come online in the last year and year and a half,” and the global recession has driven demand down, Mr. Whitman said.
Vishal Shah, an analyst with Barclays Capital, says in a research note today that “pricing pressure is intensifying” and predicts that 2010 panel prices are likely to be lower still. Barclays Capital downgraded the solar energy sector to “neutral,” from “positive.”
In the United States, demand is expected to “pick up at a much slower pace relative to prior expectations,” Mr. Shah wrote.
Until a year or so ago, polysilicon, a crucial ingredient in many solar panels, was in short supply. But more factories making it have opened, as have more factories churning out the panels themselves.
Demand has been soft in Germany, the largest solar market by far (accounting for 50 to 75 percent of most solar companies’ shipments, according to the Barclays Capital note). First Solar, which has already been bringing prices down with its thin-film modules, recently announced a rebate for German customers. Germany has a generous feed-in tariff program, but that subsidy falls by about 9 to 10 percent a year, according to Mike Ahearn, the chief executive of First Solar.
In Germany, “pricing was really a constraint, and we’ve taken that off the table,” Mr. Ahearn said in a telephone interview. First Solar recently reported strong profits for the second quarter, beating analysts’ expectations, though the rebate announcement caused a slight slump in the share price.
Over the long term, Mr. Ahearn asserted, it is good for panel prices to fall, in order to ensure adoption and political support of solar energy. “The real competition here is the conventional alternatives,” he said.