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Solar cell industry in free fall

| Saturday, July 28, 2012, 11:02 p.m.
Eric Schmadel
A robot moves solar cell strings to an array during production on June 20, 2011 at Solar Power Industries in East Huntingdon Township. (Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review)

Crashing prices for solar energy products are pushing most world manufacturers to the brink of destruction, and stiff tariffs the United States recently imposed on China are not reversing the trend.

Low prices for solar cells — used to assemble the panels — are a windfall for installers and consumers, but global manufacturers are calling foul as the price for the cells has fallen 66 percent since third quarter 2010. And Boston-based analyst firm GTM Research said it does not expect to see solar product prices increase anytime soon because of a worldwide glut.

The problem is not limited to the United States, where 13 to 20 firms drastically cut operations or went bankrupt, including the controversial Solyndra collapse with government-guaranteed loans. The impact extends to Germany, Australia, India and even China, experts say.

Jigar Shah, an entrepreneur who put together a coalition of Chinese solar companies and American distributors and installers to fight U.S. tariffs, said all major Chinese solar companies expect economic difficulties because of overproduction.

“Everything's crashing right now,” Shah told the Tribune-Review. “The Chinese are maybe overplaying their hand.”

Shah said he would not be surprised if South Korean firms, which have bided their time and spent carefully in the tight solar market, swoop in to buy the solar assets of failing companies at fire-sale prices.

Two American subsidiaries of South Korean firms, Nexolon America and OCI Solar Power, announced plans on Monday for a $1 billion construction investment in Texas that would produce 800 jobs and include a $100 million solar manufacturing facility and North American headquarters in San Antonio. OCI would build five solar power plants across Texas and sell power to municipal utilities.

South Korea's recent success is the exception in the global solar industry, Shah and other experts say.

LDK Solar, a Chinese firm with a Cayman Islands corporate address, stayed alive only by a short-term infusion of money from its native province. One of the world's largest solar firms, LDK lost more than $600 million last year — more than U.S. taxpayers lost on the entire Solyndra debacle.

LDK has more than $2 billion in short-term debt and has only $244 million in the bank, according to government filings.

SolarWorld Industries America Inc., the Oregon subsidiary of a German company that spearheaded the U.S. tariff complaint, claims the Chinese companies in Shah's coalition are the real masters of chaos.

“The Chinese big-footed the entire world,” said SolarWorld corporate spokesman Ben Santarris. “They're like the schoolyard bully.”

SolarWorld and its supporters believe that when China has driven other manufacturers from the field, prices will rise and only China will benefit, Santarris said.

In imposing tariffs on Chinese solar cell manufacturers of 31 percent to 250 percent in May, the Commerce Department agreed with SolarWorld that various governmental entities in China improperly provided money to prop up indigenous companies.

On Thursday, SolarWorld upped the ante by seeking European Union tariffs against Chinese solar companies, prompting threats of retaliation from Chinese officials.

While that debate rages, companies are going broke.

U.S. casualties in the past two months include Amonix Inc. in Nevada and Abound Solar in Colorado. Both companies received aid from the government: Amonix under President George W. Bush and Abound under President Obama.

In Germany, Centrotherm Photovoltaics AG filed for bankruptcy protection, and Schott Solar, whose origins in 1958 make it one of the world's oldest solar companies, said it would close most operations, including one in New Mexico. That state spent $16 million to help Schott locate a manufacturing plant there.

Schott, in a letter to customers, cited “ongoing extraordinary pricing pressure, especially from non-free market economies,” among reasons for the decision.

Of those who view him as a bad guy in the global solar products battle, Shah, the leader of the anti-tariff coalition, said: “I don't care.”

In 2009, Shah sold SunEdison, a solar company he built in 2003, for $200 million. Over the years, he has been called a visionary and an iconoclast.

He said the United States decided two decades ago to let solar manufacturing go wherever in the world it wanted. Now American manufacturing is left with a viable automobile industry with a robust supply chain and little else, he said.

“You can't blame China for our problems,” Shah said.

Lou Kilzer is a staff writer forTrib Total Media. He can be reached at412-380-5628 or lkilzer@tribweb.com.

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