Solar Installations, Farms Catching On with Investors Big and Small

Don’t feel too badly if you are having trouble understanding the ups and downs of the solar industry. Take the Dec. 15 Business section of the Los Angeles Times, for instance. Right above to the headline “Grand Jury Investigating Solyndra,” and yet another story outlining the high-profile bankruptcy of the Fremont, CA solar panel maker despite $535 million in federal aid and $1.1 billion in venture capital backing, was another headline “Record Gains for Solar Industry” and a story noting that “solar power is a booming business in the U.S. ” along with statistics demonstrating the truly staggering growth of solar installations across the U.S. (http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-solar-growth-20111215,0,5390004.story).

But then you flip forward a few pages and there’s another report about solar panel maker First Solar, which fell 21.4 percent to $33.45 on Dec. 15, its lowest level in four years, after announcing its second restructuring in six weeks. First Solar, long considered a solar success story and the world’s largest solar company based on market cap (although its market cap has fallen almost 75 percent this year), released an earnings warning Dec. 14 suggesting that “downward pressure on solar panel prices and profit margins will continue ‘indefinitely,” according to the Financial Times.  The company’s basic problem is that there are too many solar panels on the market and countries in Europe, where solar is very popular, are cutting subsidies and will continue to do so.

“If you’re making solar modules, it’s very dicey out there. The prices keep going down, down, down,” said Philip Lawes, chief executive of Laguna Beach, CA-based Insoltech Solar.

But just go back a few weeks and you can read the reports about Google investing millions in solar power, and then there was last week’s news about Warren Buffett getting into the solar business for the first time. MidAmerican Energy Holdings, a unit of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., purchased the Topaz solar farm in California’s San Luis Obispo County from First Solar. Terms were not disclosed but the Wall Street Journal suggested Topaz was worth “more than $2 billion. If you scan the news further, you’ll see that Buffett isn’t the only one jumping into the solar farm business. First Solar and SunPower Corp. have been unloading their solar farms to some of the U.S.’s biggest utilities, including NextEra Energy, NRG Energy and Exelon Corp.

Lawes said the big investors like Buffett see long term income in the large solar farms.

“These solar farms, they aren’t glamorous, they aren’t going to be a home run, but they create a steady cash flow over the long term,” said Lawes, adding that Buffett’s company will enjoy that steady cash flow by selling the energy produced in the farms to a utility. “The utility companies aren’t going anywhere.”

Google and KKR must agree, since they recently announced a joint investment in four solar farms south of Sacramento, CA. The deal allows the solar farm developer and operator, Recurrent Energy, to raise cash and fund future solar farms. Recurrent has a 20-year contract with Sacramento Municipal Utility District to supply electricity to power 13,000 homes, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.

There’s also opportunities for small investors, Lawes added. Entrepreneurs are approaching owners of commercial buildings offering in some cases to pay 15 cents a square foot for the use of their roofs. The entrepreneurs then install solar and sell the power to utility, just like the big guys with the big farms. “Typically, they just need a flat roof,” he said.

So, other than the big guys like First Solar, how are the smaller solar companies faring? Not that well if you are in the solar panel business.

China-based Suntech Power Holdings (NYSE: STP, http://www.suntech-power.com/), a smallcap that has boosted its market cap up to $423 million market cap in recent weeks, makes photovoltaic products and provides construction services. This stock closed on Oct. 20 at $2.07. By mid-day Dec. 23 it was trading at $2.34.

Ontario, Canada-based Canadian Solar (Nasdaq: CSIQ, http://www.canadian-solar.com/), which sells a variety of solar products, continues to decline. Back in late August it was trading for $6.74. At mid-day Dec. 23 it was trading for $2.85.

China-based LDK Solar Co. (NYSE: LDK, http://www.ldksolar.com/)) manufactures solar products and silicon materials. It, too, has bounced back from lows in late October of around $3. At mid-day Dec. 23 it was trading for $4.91, much closer to the highs of nearly $6 in late August.

China-based Trina Solar Ltd. (NYSE: TSL, http://www.trinasolar.com/)) designs, manufactures and sells photovoltaic modules worldwide. It’s now trading for less than half its Aug. 31 close of $15.88. By Oct. 20 it had declined to $7.15. It’s up from there, but not much. At mid-day Dec. 23 TSL stock was trading for $7.39.

Shanghai-based JA Solar Holdings Co. (Nasdaq: JASO, http://www.jasolar.com) makes solar cells and other solar

 

products and has hit by the downturn. On Aug. 31 its stock closed at $3.66; by Oct. 20 it closed at $2.14; at mid-day Dec. 23 it was trading for $1.39.

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