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March 30th, 2009
A glut of silicon threatens First Solar -- and other low-cost panel makers. A year agao, refined silicon for solar cells cost 450 bucks a kilo on the spot market. You can have it today for closer to 100 and if you wait a month it may be cheaper still. Thanks to the workings of international capitalism, the 90% margins available in last year's market spurred silicon-factory expansions around the planet. But the new supply arrived just as end-market demand for solar panels got eclipsed by faltering government incentives, lower oil prices and the world financial freeze.
Cheaper solar silicon is of course a great thing for the planet's living creatures. But solar companies and investors who planned for silicon that was scarce and high-priced must adjust their business models for a glut that looms larger than most anyone expected. New government subsidies will help in the U.S. and in China, which energized solar stocks last week with a plan to help China's struggling photovoltaic industry. Lower prices will also stimulate sales volumes as solar panels become cost-competitive with fossil-fueled power. The question is whether solar energy's volume producers will end up resembling the high-margined Intel or the profitless memory-chip makers. "An industry with 30 suppliers would be a nightmare," says analyst Dan Ries of the brokerage firm Collins Stewart. The "flash-memory market managed to be a nightmare with just 2½ suppliers."
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