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China's Solar Markets Also Catch Chill

With the solar bubble apparently bursting around the industry's ears in late 2011, as 2012 opens its doors for business much attention has been focused on the sector. The markets are certainly wise to be cautious given the impact of the downturn, regulatory instability and an increasingly price-competitive and oversupplied market.

Indeed, it is clear that no-one in the solar sector has escaped unscathed. For while there are those who would like to lay the blame for the current squeeze on China's doorstep, even some Chinese majors have suffered a noticeable dip.

Take Trina Solar, which announced its Q3 figures late last year. It reported that solar module shipments were approximately 370 MW for the third quarter of 2011, representing a decrease of 6.6 percent sequentially with 396.4 MW in the second quarter of 2011, though an increase of 27.4 percent year-on-year compared with 2010 Q3 of 290.5 MW. The decrease was primarily due to a reduction in available financing for some European projects and an increased customer credit risk management strategy, says Trina.

More significantly, net revenues were US$481.9 million, a decrease of 16.8 percent sequentially and 5.2 percent below the equivalent quarter of 2010, despite the significant increase in shipments. Losses from operations were $23.5 million, compared to a positive income of $32.8 million in the second quarter of 2011 and $113.0 million in the third quarter of 2010.

During the third quarter of 2011, the company announced supply agreements with Huanghe Hydropower Development Co., Ltd, a subsidiary of China Power Investment Corporation, for two ground-mounted solar projects in Qinghai, China for a total of 30 MW. It also signed a strategic partnership agreement with Origin Energy Australia to supply approximately 22 MW of PV modules.

Commenting on the figures, Jifan Gao, Trina’s chairman and CEO, said: "To best position Trina Solar going forward, we are refining our marketing and product strategies to address larger and more diversified distribution channels, in both established and emerging solar markets. These include growing the US residential leasing channel, where we recently signed a 60 MW supply agreement in the fourth quarter."

Looking forward, for the fourth quarter of 2011, Trina says it expects to ship between 320 MW-350 MW of modules. Based on this assessment it has revised its outlook for the full year 2011 PV module shipment down to approximately 1.4 GW, compared with previous guidance of 1.75 GW-1.8 GW.

Similarly, in its latest figures Suntech Power Holdings Co., Ltd, the world’s largest producer of solar panels, showed total net revenues of $809.8 million in the third quarter of 2011, compared with $830.7 million – a decrease of 2.5 percent on the previous quarter, and an increase of 8.9 percent year-on-year with $743.7 million in the third quarter of 2010. Suntech’s total PV shipments also increased, in this case approximately 16 percent sequentially, and 36 percent year-on-year with 1.6 GW of silicon ingot and wafer capacity and 2.4 GW of cell and module capacity as of the end of Q3 2011.

The sequential decrease in revenues was primarily due to a decline in the average selling price of PV products, partially offset by an increase of shipments, Suntech says.

Loss from operations in the third quarter of 2011 was $16.0 million and operating margin was -2 percent, compared to losses from operations of $170.3 million and operating margin of -20.5 percent in the second quarter of 2011. These figures compare with an income of $62.6 million and an operating margin of 8.4 percent in Q3 2010.

Dr Zhengrong Shi, Suntech’s chairman and CEO, said: "Looking forward, we expect excess capacity to fuel strong competition and consolidation in the next two to three quarters. This will be challenging for all solar companies." The company plans to meet these challenges by reducing operating expenses by 20 percent in 2012 and holding off on planned capacity expansion this year.

Yingli Green Energy Holding Company Ltd also announced its Q3 results, saying that PV module shipments in fact increased by 21.9 percent from the second quarter of 2011, reaching a new high. But although total net revenues were RMB4258.6 million ($667.7 million) and gross profit was RMB458.5 million ($71.9 million), operating loss was RMB 5.5 million ($0.9 million), an operating margin of -0.1 percent. Based on current market and operating conditions, estimated production capacity and forecasted customer demand, the company has revised its PV module shipment target downwards to an estimated range of 1580 MW-1630 MW from the previous range of 1700 MW-1750 MW for fiscal year 2011.

Putting this into a European context, we see Q-Cells’ Q3 figures showing revenues of €228.8 million, compared with €316 million in Q2, and a revenue target of €1 billion confirmed for FY2011. Q-Cells says it expects that the implementation of several major utility projects in the fourth quarter will produce revenues of a level similar to Q2. In the third quarter, the operating result was again negative, standing at -€47.3 million.

Like Yingli, Schott Solar AG, the parent company of Schott Solar PV, Inc, also reported an increase in module sales. For its fiscal year, ending September 30, 2011, that percentage of growth was in the double digits, despite a rather difficult market environment, the company says.

Schott said it will be discontinuing its wafer manufacturing activities at its site in Jena, also in Germany, with 290 employees affected. Overcapacities and severe declines in prices, particularly with wafers and cells, have been the dominating factors. They lowered their prices for modules once again by more than 40 percent just like they did in 2009, a statement from the company says.

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