Solar Industry M&A – Really?

With the collapse of publicly traded solar stocks in the last 4 months, the general business press has been buzzing with speculation about mergers and acquisitions. But these articles have missed some basic industry drivers and circumstances that may point to minimal M&A activity. A good example includes a recent Bloomberg article about how First Solar is a take over target for GE and Siemens as FSLR’s share price has fallen from $156 in Q1 2011 to $36 today losing enormous value.

First Solar - M&A Target?

While I have tremendous respect for what FSLR has accomplished and believe that high performance thin-film will be a factor at some point in the longer term, rapidly changing market dynamics have caught up with the company.  Manufactured costs of crystalline silicon PV modules have dropped much more rapidly than thin-film as a category or FSLR could match.  Indeed, FSLR’s stated guidance was to decrease manufacturing cost by $0.05 per Watt during the last 18 months compared to a $0.20 – $0.35 per Watt decrease by a variety of crystalline providers.

Solar thin-film as a general category is lower in efficiency, which requires more land/space, balance of systems (inverters, racking, wiring, permitting, administration) and as such, requires a module sale price differential from a crystalline module of approximately 30% to remain competitive. Currently the delta between the 2 module technology types is only 6% – 10% in the spot and long-term contract markets respectively.

The thin-film business model as a general category in the current environment is broken. (exception may be Solar Frontier) While First Solar has their downstream project development and EPC capability glossing over the module manufacturing cost problem, this will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future. And with behemoths like Samsung, LG, Hyundai and now Foxconn about to enter the market with aggressive low cost capabilities and significant resources, the pace of cost reductions will continue.

I would be more than surprised if GE (especially since GE has its own thin-film effort with an integrated BOS approach) or Siemens or similar entities would buy FSLR with the current market dynamics in play. If the price becomes low enough, they may have interest in FSLR’s substantial project pipeline but that would need to be significantly lower than the current $36 price.

Overall, acquisitions in the PV module manufacturing industry don’t make much sense even at the current low valuations unless there is valuable IP present or there is a substantial project pipeline as a result of downstream integration. This is because the barriers to market entry are quite low. Manufacturing equipment used throughout the supply chain is generally American and European made off-the-shelf production machines with willing and able companies such as Applied Materials ready to supply. Additionally, most Asian solar manufacturers have no brand value established worth purchasing. Foxcon’s entry in the PV industry is a good example where no existing company or capacity was purchased, opting instead for the latest, highest efficiency manufacturing platforms available while partnering with an existing Chinese poly silicon company for raw material supply.

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