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Solar PV Inverter Market Shakeout Continues With ABB and Power-One Deal

A pair of analyst reports issued last week came to roughly the same conclusion about the market for solar PV inverters: It's getting crowded and complicated, with top incumbents facing challenges in maintaining near-term growth in an increasingly fragmented market.

Those PV inverter stalwarts will need to pursue more restructuring and mergers & acquisitions to stay atop the shifting and broadening customer base, addressing everything from tough-to-crack markets (e.g. China, Japan) and embracing newer technologies such as module-level power conversion, i.e. microinverters, say IMS Research and GTM Research. This consolidation has already started to play out: SMA bought Chinese inverter maker Jiangsu Zeversolar New Energy in December 2012, and earlier this month Advanced Energy acquired REFUsol, a German maker of three-phase string solar PV inverters.

And today there's another M&A splash in solar PV inverters: Swiss machinery component conglomerate ABB is acquiring No. 2 PV inverter company Power-One for approximately $1 billion.

The $6.35/share cash consideration — which, including Power-One's $266 million net cash, amounts to a 6.4× multiple on 2012 EBITDA and 13× on projected 2013 earnings — was a 57 percent premium to Power-One's closing on April 19 and a 50 percent premium on its 90-day average stock price. (PWER's stock already has shot up today and absorbed all of that premium.) The deal is expected to close in the second half of this year, and be accretive to earnings in the first year. Power-One will be slotted within ABB's discrete automation and motion division, alongside power control and quality, industrial motion, and electric vehicle charging and components.

The solar PV inverter market is expected to grow 10 percent annually through 2021, say the companies, citing data from the International Energy Agency (IEA). IMS Research pegs it as a $7 billion market today and exceeding $9 billion in 2016, rising 14 percent annually through 2017. Within that, the inverter segment is "the most attractive and 'intelligent' part of the PV value chain," the companies say.

Global PV inverter revenues. (Source: IMS Research/IHS)

Here's what both sides gain from the deal:

ABB: Gains better access to the Americas region (USA, Canada, Central/South America). Power-One is active here and is targeting this as a key growth segment for 2013 at all levels, residential, commercial and utility. The company's Trio (commercial) and Ultra (utility) inverters were recently UL-certified. Adding Power-One also gives ABB inroads into residential and commercial markets in Europe and worldwide beyond its traditional utility-scale focus, points out Cormac Gilligan, a lead analyst on IMS Research's inverter team.

Jefferies analyst Scott Reynolds likens this deal to ABB's 2012 acquisition of Thomas & Betts, which expanded its portfolio into low-voltage technology but also added 6,000 distribution points and wholesales in North America. Power-One "has a significantly larger sales and distribution footprint than ABB which will enable the combined entity to accelerate growth," he writes in a research note.

Power-One: Gains access to ABB's broader worldwide footprint for manufacturing and R&D capabilities, including in-house know-how of power electronics. It also can leverage ABB's brand and background for "bankability" in securing access to finance, Gilligan says. ABB also cites its own strengths in the wind inverter sector, plus monitoring/control, infrastructure, and services.

As a combined entity, ABB and Power-One will still have to balance the trend of decreasing prices for PV inverters that will squeeze profits. And like everyone else they'll have to secure inroads into emerging markets (Asia, Middle East, South America). Markets in Japan, China, and India in particular will be key: working with local suppliers and meeting each country's unique requirements (e.g., JET certification in Japan) and price points.

To that end, M&A activity in the PV inverter market is likely only just getting started. ABB pursued this Power-One deal now because waiting for more clarity in market direction could very well lead to paying more, said Joe Hogan, ABB CEO, during an investor conference call. There are no midsize or large deals in ABB's short-term pipeline, he noted, and emphasized that "you won't see us ever do a solar panel deal" because "we're not a machinery company at all."

Some might question ABB's long-term appetite for solar M&A given last fall's backpedaling of investment CPV startup Greenvolts. But PV inverters are very much in the company's wheelhouse of expertise in power electronics, power management and grid interactions, Hogan reiterated. Solar PV inverters have to interface with grids in diverse regions with unique technical and regulatory requirements, and "we know how to do that. It's in our DNA," he said.

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