At the turn of the year, photovoltaics manufacturers are faced with difficult choices: continue selling at prices that do not allow for positive margins, or shutter production and wait for the current situation to settle down. With significant inventory on the supply side, and expectations on the demand side for continued low pricing, the correction is likely to be long and painful.
If the price of technology per watt peak is below the cost of producing it and technology manufacturers are failing, true grid parity has not been reached.
A fire sale is the sale of goods at extremely discounted prices. Today's prices are artificially low, and decreasing almost daily. Confusion over who is buying what technology at what price has made establishing a global average almost impossible. Adding to the confusion are joyful announcements that grid parity has been reached. Right up front, if the price of technology per watt peak is below the cost of producing it and technology manufacturers are failing, true grid parity has not been reached. Currently there is significant tension between technology's manufacturers and its buyers. On the buying side, current low prices are leading to healthy margins, and thus this group does not want to see prices increase. On the selling side, well, margins are negative and the future looks grim.
Along with the failures of third tier technology, manufacturers and module assemblers are failures of industry pioneers. This is not a symptom of healthy correction and consolidation, it is a sign of something gone severely awry in the value chain of the PV industry. Rhetorical question: if all the technology manufacturers go out of business will there be a PV industry?
PV is an industry of optimists. In fact, optimism should be a requirement for entry because before 2004 all, or at least most, of the technology manufacturers lost money. Before a reasonably steady slate of incentives, demand was primarily into the off-grid applications with grid-connected demand hit or miss. Despite all obstacles, and driven by industry participants who truly believed that they had a calling, the industry survived until it could thrive. And thrive it did. From 2005 through to 2011, the PV industry grew by a compound annual rate of 59 percent. In 2010 over 2009, shipments to the first point of sale grew by 120 percent. This extraordinarily strong growth was driven by the generous feed-in tariff (FiT) market in Europe. The strong EU FiTs led to a virtual gold rush in the solar industry, inviting new entrants who, knowing nothing of the industry's history, did not understand the inherent risks of an incentive-driven market.
Current State of the Industry
There is significant tension currently between the demand and supply sides of the PV industry. Supply side participants (not news to readers of public financial statements) are suffering from negative margins, large losses and are shuttering production. High debt in Italy, currently the strongest market, is giving investors pause, and the market is slowing. The German market has slowed and other European markets cannot take up the slack. In 2010, the markets in Europe had an 80 percent share of global demand. In 2011, the markets in Europe will have a ~72 percent share, with Japan, the U.S. and finally China consuming more product. In the case of China, having built the strongest global export market and, with its manufacturers experiencing significant losses, the government can choose to install domestically or allow inventories to increase significantly. China is choosing to install. The government in China has also publically indicated that it will control capacity additions. The country will still have a dominant share of global capacity at an eventual 20 GWp.
In all markets, manufacturers are shuttering production and stepping back from announced capacity plans. Though several polysilicon manufacturers are apparently carrying forward with capacity additions, many are quietly discarding plans for capacity expansions while publicly putting on a brave face. The time for brave faces may be past; in its place is the need for true courage. For an industry that has historically faced significant obstacles and, by and large, surmounted these obstacles and survived, the current state of affairs requires courage indeed. The proof of this is in the manufacturer bankruptcies that have already occurred, and in the bankruptcies still to come.
The current state of the industry includes crashing prices and negative margins for manufacturers, decreasing incentive rates, high levels of debt in markets such as Greece and Italy, high levels of capacity and high levels of inventory. The U.S. is a promising market, but the demand side (installers, system integrators, EPCs, developers) has grown so significantly that it is now overcrowded. Project bids are, in some cases, at the 8.5 cents/Wp level, which does not support quality system installations. The demand side of the PV industry in the U.S. may well suffer the next correction. (Corrections are healthy, though they can also take a long, long time. As an example, consider the still recovering U.S. housing market.)
A caveat to 2011 data, as the final data are not available until the 2012 survey is completed: the 2011 total is an estimate based on quarterly assessments. In fact, pricing data is coming in almost daily. The methodology used is classic market research. This discipline counts things from where they start to where they first stop, begins counting again to the next stop, and so on.
Figure 1 (below) presents 2011 as the global PV industry moves into 2012. The figure includes bars for inventory, installations, shipments to the first buyer, production, capacity and announcements. The announcements are included to make the point that announced plans are not data. The first buyer in the market can be a module assembler, an installer, system integrator, EPC, distributor, retailer, and even another manufacturer. Outsourcing and rebranding has always been common in the PV industry. With current low prices, it is simply the way business is being done.
Note that in Figure 1 a high level of demand-side inventory (~4 GWp) remains at the end of 2011. High levels of demand-side and supply-side inventory, high levels of capacity, decreasing incentive rates and current unease among investors about the markets in Europe (given anxiety over the Euro and high debt levels) are holding technology prices down.
In 2011, manufacturers from China and Taiwan accounted for 56 percent of total technology shipped to the first buyer. Technology shipped to the first buyer includes cells and modules from the original technology manufacturer. Technology is frequently reshipped several times, particularly in the current market situation.
It Ain't Grid Parity if Everyone Goes Bust
The demand side of the PV industry, particularly some very vocal participants in the U.S., argues that if prices increase, it will not be able to do business. But if prices do not increase it will not be able to do business, as the majority of manufacturers will cease manufacturing for a time, or disappear altogether. This would leave a vastly decreased field and prices would rise. No matter what, prices will rise, though with current high inventory levels and gray market selling it will take some time. Prices may not rise to a healthy level until the end of 2012. These increases will be fought and resented, but manufacturers cannot continue selling at the current levels.
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