Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sharp To Join Toshiba and "Outsource some Module Production" to SunPower; SolarWorld Enters Japan

Sharp Corporation has been suffering from widely reported financial distress this past year or two, as its core LCD screen and TV business has been in difficulty, together with many of its smaller businesses.

And, of course, Sharp is one of the major Japanese manufacturers of solar PV cells/modules and related equipment (together with Kyocera and Panasonic/Sanyo and others).

One of the more interesting arrangements in the Japanese PV market has been SunPower's supply to Toshiba.  Toshiba made the (financially wise) decision not to manufacture solar PV modules, and instead has purchased the product from third party suppliers.  At last year's PV Japan exhibition (December 2011), the Toshiba booth could advertise Toshiba-branded modules with the "world highest module-level conversion ratio" -- above 19%.   At PV Japan this year (December 5-7 2012), they again could promote a residential product with the "world highest" conversion ratio, at just over 20%.  According to Bloomberg and other sources, SunPower and Toshiba have now extended their module supply agreement through 2018, at 100MW per year.

So I was interested to read in the Yomiuri a story that Sharp will buy modules from SunPower as well, as it shuts down unprofitable production at several domestic Japanese module factories (but maintains others, and continues its "BlackSolar" residential product).  The Yomiuri story suggests that Sharp is taking these steps in an attempt to cost losses AND increase its share of the PV module market in Japan in response to this year's rapid growth under the feed-in tariff.  No confirmation from the companies themselves.

Lastly, I should note that SunPower is now in the Japanese market directly, targeting the commercial rooftop market.  They had a big booth at PV Japan 2012 last week -- just next to the Toshiba booth, and hosted a marketing seminar on why their product makes economic sense (probably not a difficult case to make in Japan given expensive rooftop space, a high feed-in tariff, high installation costs and premium pricing of Japanese competitors' products).

For anyone not familiar with it, SunPower is a U.S. based and listed company with a long history of innovation and development in the PV business ... but now with majority French ownership (Total) and its modules produced at factories in the Philippines.

If you want an actual "made in the U.S." module, then note that SolarWorld, a large German-based module manufacturer, also now has an exclusive distributor in Japan and had a major exhibit at PV Japan.  In contrast to SunPower, its product does not stand out particularly from a performance/specification perspective, but it does have very modern, large scale, highly automated production sites in the developed world, including the U.S. (just outside my hometown of Portland, Oregon).  And it has been the only named plaintiff in the U.S. (and EU?) cases pursuing trade remedies against the Chinese manufacturers for unfair government subsidies/dumping, etc.

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