North Coast Solar Stocks

July 20, 2009

Japan’s Sharp Expects Boost from Solar Energy

Filed under: STP — Tags: , , , — Jason @ 11:18 am

Japanese electronics company Sharp is seeking tie ups overseas, improved technology, and ramped-up business at home to boost its solar power business

By Kenji Hall

In late 2007, not long after stepping in as president of Sharp, Mikio Katayama learned an important lesson about the energy industry. Katayama was meeting with diplomats in Japan and government officials overseas to discuss Sharp’s business producing photovoltaic solar panels. He had figured mounting evidence about global warming would be a wake-up call for countries to invest more in clean energy technologies. But instead, officials talked about solar energy in terms of national security. “That’s when we realized that it wasn’t just about saving the environment,” he recalled in a recent interview.

Katayama ordered his management team to rethink Sharp’s solar business. In the past the Osaka company would rush factories into service when building a new business. But Katayama felt that wouldn’t work with solar panels. Among his fears: Countries might not want to reduce their dependence on imported oil only to replace that with a dependence on imported solar panels.

Today, Katayama hopes to avert such a scenario by building more local solar panel factories through joint ventures. The decision could help the company access new markets with fewer resources than it would need to put up a new factory at home. Sharp’s announcement last November that it was discussing a deal with Italian utility Enel marks the first such deal. The two are expected to set up a new solar-panel-making plant in Italy and recruit another investor to share the cost. They could extend their tieup to several solar-power-generating facilities they would run jointly.

Freeze in Private-Sector Investments

Sharp executives say they aren’t abandoning their manufacturing base in Japan. By next spring the company plans to open a $700 million plant in Sakai near Osaka. The facility, built on the same premises as Sharp’s newest factory for liquid-crystal display panels that go into flat-screen TVs, will initially produce 480 megawatts’ worth of so-called thin-film solar cells annually, mainly for Japan, the U.S., and Western Europe.

For now, Sharp is in no hurry to ramp up output. Researcher iSuppli predicts that worldwide installations of solar panel systems will drop 32% to 3.5 gigawatts this year, from 5.2 gigawatts last year. Revenue declines could be even sharper—by 40%, to $18.2 billion—as the price per watt in a solar cell falls. Cutbacks in Spain are mainly to blame. What’s more, the recent financial turmoil has put a freeze on private-sector investments in renewable energy. But the market could bounce back by 2010, iSuppli says.

Sharp’s solar business accounts for less than 7%, or $1.6 billion, of its $30 billion in annual revenues. This fiscal year, Macquarie Securities expects Sharp’s solar division to swing to a profit of $52 million thanks to a 21% gain in revenues, to $2 billion. Next year revenues could be up another 40%. (Sharp’s not just making panels for rooftops and utility projects: In June, it released a clamshell cell phone with a built-in solar panel.)

Japan’s big hopes for solar could help Sharp and other domestic producers. As part of a plan announced in June to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15% from 2005 levels by 2020, the government aims to raise its solar power output twenty fold, initially by investing in solar panels for schools. In January, Japan introduced a subsidy for solar panel equipment; by the end of the year the government is expected to launch a 10-year program to let consumers who have solar panels sell surplus electricity to utility companies at double the price that companies do. The goal, say officials, is to have renewable sources supplying 11% of the country’s energy by 2020, up from 5.9% in 2005.

Gunning for Overseas Rivals

But the bigger opportunities are overseas. The key for Sharp, analysts say, will be to improve its technology to stay ahead of low-cost producers in Asia. Sharp is shifting to so-called thin-film photovoltaic cells where it’s an industry leader. They aren’t as efficient at converting sunlight into energy as the conventional crystalline-silicon type; however, they can be made faster using a fraction of the silicon, and are more suitable for power facilities where Sharp is angling to make an impact.

Of course, technology hasn’t prevented Sharp from losing ground against rivals. Germany’s Q-Cell passed Sharp as the world’s top solar cell producer three years ago. The key to Q-Cell’s surge was Germany’s introduction of a feed-in tariff system that let consumers sell any excess electricity from their solar panels to the local utility company, which helped consumers recoup the cost of the panels quicker. These days, Suntech Power (STP) has put China on the map as the emerging global powerhouse in solar panels. A similar thing happened in flat-panel TVs. Sharp was the world’s dominant producer of LCD sets in 2000, but it now trails rivals Samsung Electronics and Sony (SNE).

Katayama’s worry that governments could treat solar energy like oil might never materialize. Currently, solar energy makes up a mere 0.4% of global electricity capacity. The International Energy Agency predicts that all renewable energy technologies will account for just 10% of global energy demand by 2030. Still, Katayama isn’t taking any chances. “Every country will have a different approach to energy security and the environment,” he says. “We have to adapt.”

Hall is BusinessWeek’s technology correspondent in Tokyo.

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