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Evergreen Solar Has Successful IPO

Investors may want to pay heed to an offering from Evergreen Solar (Nasdaq: ESLR).

The Waltham, Massachusetts-based provider of solar power panels, cells, and systems debuted on Thursday and recorded the second-best opening-day return of the week. After pricing its 3 million-share offering at $14 per share, the middle of its $13-to-$15 price range, Evergreen's shares opened just slightly higher at $15.75. But by the end of the day on Thursday, its shares had rallied to close at $19, a 36 percent premium to where they were offered.

While a solar energy company might seem outside the realm of interest among technology investors, Eric Prouty, senior energy technology analyst at Robertson Stephens in San Francisco, says it's really not that different from semiconductor manufacturing companies. After all, solar panels convert light into electricity, which is the most basic function of a semiconductor. So in some ways, it's a matter of investors thinking outside their standard technology investment box and looking at the ways that companies like Evergreen Solar can bring the latest technology to an area of the market that has traditionally been seen as "low-tech" and dominated by the traditional smokestack companies.

Unlike the recent emergence of alternative energy sources such as fuel cells, flywheels, and microturbines, Mr. Prouty says that solar power energy has been out of the lab and in the commercial markets for 20 to 30 years. So there really is not a need to explain in any great detail what solar energy is or the benefits it can offer. But perhaps there is some question among investors why these companies are popping up in the IPO market now.

WHY SOLAR? WHY NOW? The answer, says Mr. Prouty, is that companies like Evergreen Solar and its competitor AstroPower (Nasdaq: APWR) are attempting to ramp up their manufacturing capabilities. AstroPower and Evergreen Solar are looking to double their manufacturing capacity in order to take advantage of the growing worldwide demand for solar energy.

"World-wide demand continues to be extremely robust and mostly from countries outside the U.S.," says Mr. Prouty, who points to countries like Germany and Spain that have offered financial incentives to encourage consumers to choose this alternative energy source.

Japan, the U.S., Germany, and India together account for more than 52 percent of total solar panel installations worldwide, according to PV Energy Systems, a solar-power research firm. Annual worldwide sales of solar power products are expected to increase to about $27 billion by 2020 from the approximately $1.5 billion in sales, or more than 150 megawatts, generated in 1998, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The demand is so intense in Asia that Evergreen recently formed a five-year strategic distribution and marketing relationship with Japan's Kawasaki. As part of the partnership, Kawasaki invested $5 million in Evergreen Solar. Japan is currently the largest solar power market in the world, accounting for 27 percent of the world-wide solar power shipments in 1998, according to PV Energy Systems.

With alternative sources of energy clearly rising to the top of the agenda for many countries in light of global warming and concerns of rising rates of oil consumption, investors might consider an investment in nontraditional technology companies like Evergreen Solar. While it is clearly not as sexy as a fiber-optic component maker, alternative energy sources form a market that is not going to dry up anytime soon, and savvy investors could stand to profit from that growth.

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