Preview: PV shipments up, but revenues nosedive as Suntech becomes latest casualty

Paula Mints

As the PV industry continues to struggle with ever-decreasing prices, has the time come when positive margins and strong budgets for R&D are worth a higher price for PV modules? Paula Mints tries to make sense of current pricing dynamics in an industry that continues to defy logic.

Online preview: The full version of this article will appear in the March/April issue of Renewable Energy Focus magazine. For a free signup click here.

On the surface, good news: In 2012 PV industry shipments to the first point of sale increased by 8%. But at the same time Average Selling Prices (ASPs) decreased by 40%, and cell/module revenues decreased by 35%.

2012 at least saw the emergence of some newer markets. For example, Latin America and Africa began showing signs that they might fulfill their potential, and China continued developing its domestic market. As did Japan, India and the US.

But the common wisdom is that much of this is only possible because of the significant decrease in the price of solar modules (and hence the reduction in price of system costs).

What is also left unsaid is that it has also been made possible because of the failures of many manufacturers. The latest doom and gloom tale is the woes experienced by Suntech, which has just become bankrupt.

Of course, this is bad news in many cases: one especially difficult-to-quantify cost of the successful global deployment of PV technology is the loss of innovation and R&D talent that goes hand in hand with bankruptcy and failure. Much inspiration and innovation has been sidelined in the rush to deploy higher levels of PV technology at ever-lower prices.

It might be time to reconsider the definition of success in the PV industry. Maybe positive margins and strong budgets for R&D are worth a slightly higher price for PV modules?

Show me the money? Er, what money!

It is now clear that PV industry growth has followed a significant, often dramatic, upward trajectory. But unfortunately, revenues have followed an unprofitable path.

There has been a significant decrease in manufacturer cell/module revenues in 2012 over 2011. In 2012 manufacturer cell and module revenues decreased by ~35%.

When we look at individual companies the reality is even more stark: The table below presents the top ten manufacturers for 2012, along with each manufacturer’s revenues and net losses.

In the case of Gintech and Suntech (the latter now declared bankrupt), as neither manufacturer has announced results for Q4 2012 an estimate has been made based on primary survey effort and available financial information. Observing this list all manufacturers had net losses in 2012.

The manufacturers in the table shipped 58% of total shipments in 2012: Revenues for the manufacturers were 65% of total revenues in 2012. And in a stark reality, the manufacturers in this table lost a combined
US$2.1-billion in 2012.

2012 Top Ten Manufacturers (reproduced with the permission of SPV Market Research)
 2012 2012 MWp Revenues in Millions ($) Net losses in millions ($)
Yingli 2297.1 1,828.5 -491.9
First Solar 1875.4 3,368.5 -96.3
JA Solar 1680.0 1,071.6 -150
Trina Solar 1590.0 1,296.7 -266.6
Canadian Solar 1543.0 1,294.0 -195.3
Suntech 1500.0 1,065.0 -351.3
Gintech 1059.0 470.4 -28.3
Sharp Solar 932.0 2,282.9 -230.1
NeoSolar 910.0 413.0 -141.1
Total Above 14660.5 7,262.0 NA
Other 10812.5 7262.0 NA
Total Industry 25473.0 20,875.6 NA

 Online preview: The full version of this article will appear in the March/April issue of Renewable Energy Focus magazine. It will also contain charts looking at PV Industry growth (2002-2013 estimate) and Regional PV Shipments and Average Selling Prices (2002-2012). For a free signup click here.

About: Paula Mints is Founder, and Chief Market Research Analyst at SPV Market Research. She was most recently a director in the energy division at Navigant Consulting responsible for its Solar Services Program, and prior to that was a Senior Market Analyst at Strategies Unlimited.

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Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity