Solar execs see small signs of recovery

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - Solar power executives are seeing encouraging signs of what could be a major recovery in U.S. solar demand, but they are still cautious about the rest of this year after being pummeled by the global credit crisis.

"The prospects for 2010 and beyond are quite significant," Suntech Power Holdings Co Ltd Chief Strategy Officer Steven Chan told the Reuters Global Energy Summit. "Next year, I wouldn't be surprised if the U.S. market tripled off of this year.

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The solar industry was virtually unscathed by the economic downturn until late last year, when funding for all types of projects dried up.

That lack of financing combined with a pullback in solar tax breaks in Spain released a flood of solar panels into the market, driving prices down and hurting producers' profits.

But Chan and Tom Werner, the chief executive of U.S. rival SunPower Corp, see positive signs in both the credit markets and in U.S. policy to support renewable energy.

Despite the weak economy, Chan expects the solar market in the United States to be about flat in 2009 compared with 2008. At the same time, Suntech expects to double its U.S. market share to 20 percent this year from 10 percent last year.

The federal stimulus package has already helped improve sentiment in the market, Werner said, though he does not expect those funds to affect the company's bottom line until "the back half of the year, perhaps Q4." He sees a much larger impact in 2010.

SunPower has seen six weeks of encouraging trends during the first half of this quarter, Werner added, but was quick to warn that the Unites States could be in the middle of a W-shaped recovery that would not be sustained.

Energy Conversion Devices Inc CEO Mark Morelli was more sober in his outlook for the U.S. solar market this year, arguing that access to project financing remains scarce and government stimulus funds have yet to kick in.

"It's marginally better," said Morelli, whose company reported an 81 percent drop in quarterly profit in May and declined to provide any outlook.

"The issue is really the pace by which things are moving," he said. "It's very slow. The U.S. market in particular is very slow."

ECD makes lightweight, flexible solar laminates for rooftops and buildings that convert sunlight into electricity. The thin film products are made from amorphous silicon and unlike traditional solar panels, do not rely on costly crystalline silicon as their primary raw material.

Like its larger competitor, First Solar Inc, the company has resorted to providing financing to its customers in order to get projects started.

But even Morelli said he was "a bit optimistic" about 2010.

"We don't know when the financing will come back; we just hope it will come back," he said.

For its part, Suntech said it was seeking between $200 million and $500 million from Chinese banks to help fund solar projects outside of China.

"They are now open to funding for overseas projects and overseas trade finance," Chan said of the discussions the company is having with Chinese banks. "It's just a question of their due diligence and getting them comfortable with the projects."



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