Module margins shrink in silicon price war


Third-quarter estimates for silicon solar manufacturers showed declining margins and profits, as average selling price (ASP) sank about 30 percent, toward $1 per watt. But despite an inventory glut, there’s little evidence of a slowdown in production at the major factories.

SunPower, the strongest presence in the U.S. market, reports a strong revenue gain for Q3, up 19 percent to $705 million, from $550 million a year ago. But gross margin drops from 20.4 percent to 10.8 percent.

Chinese Production Still Rising

In China, global market-share leader Suntech estimated that shipments will increase 13 percent in the quarter. Revenue will rise to more than $800 million (up at least 7 percent from $744 million a year ago), but gross margin erodes from 18 percent to 13 percent for the quarter.

Yingli Green Energy expects module shipments for the third quarter to increase by “a low twenties percentage quarter over quarter,” which would put revenue at about $600 million, compared to $491 million a year ago. Margins fall from 33.3 percent in Q3 2010 to about 10 or 11 percent this quarter.

Trina Solar estimated third-quarter module shipments at 372 megawatts (MW) to 375 MW, with gross margins (for all products) at 10 to 11 percent. Shipments rose about 28 percent from 291 MW in Q3 2010, while overall gross margin fell from 31.4 a year ago.

Canadian Solar expects shipments to be 350 MW to 360 MW, up about 77 percent from a year ago. The price drop sends gross margin spinning from 17.3 percent in Q3 last year to somewhere between 2 and 5 percent this quarter.

Despite a three-week shutdown of its Haining factory after a fluoride spill, Jinko Solar estimated that module shipments in Q3 will soar about 59 percent, from 135 MW a year ago to 210-220 MW, while revenue rises just 29 percent from $215 million a year ago to $270-280 million on the quarter. Jinko hasn’t announced an estimated gross margin for this quarter, but it falls sharply from a record 33.5 percent in Q3 2010.

LDK, which makes polysilicon ingots and wafers as well as complete modules, saw module shipments roughly double, from 94 MW in Q3 2010 to about 185-190 MW for the same period in 2011 – but gross margin (company-wide) fell from 22.2 percent to between 3.5 and 5 percent.

China Sunergy reported $146 million in revenue for the third quarter, up 16 percent over the year earlier, while shipments jumped 32 percent to 116 MW, up from 88 MW.

European Factories Scaling Back

Shipments from European factories fell off a cliff. Q-cells reported Q3 shipments at EUR 229 million, down 43 percent from EU 402 million in Q3 2010. Production fell 49 percent, from 305 MW in Q3 2010 to 156 MW in Q3 2011. Sunways AG reported that while module production rose very slightly over Q3 2010 (11.3 MW to 11.4 MW), module revenue dropped 26 percent, from EUR 19 million to EUR 14 million. SolarWorld increased production 2 percent, from 191 MW in Q3 2010 to 195 MW, but revenue fell 30 percent, from EUR 342 million in Q3 2010 to EUR 238 million this year.

Thin-Film Leaders Respond

Downward pressure on prices from Chinese silicon put some thin-film start-ups into receivership this year. Market-share leader First Solar this week passed the 5-gigawatt mark in total shipments. The company scaled back its forecast for the fiscal year, but estimated Q3 revenues of $1 billion, up 20 percent from $798 billion a year earlier, with a healthy gross margin of 42 percent. That cost structure suggests shipments of about 600 MW during the quarter. Going forward, the company will face vigorous competition from General Electric, which will scale its PrimeStar division from 30 MW to 300 MW (annualized) over the next two years.

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