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Global warming sparks polysilicon crunch
Raw-material price spikes, leaving solar-panel makers scrambling

Not lucky enough to have a long-term contract? Spot-market prices for polysilicon are daunting: Expect to pay $200 per kilogram on the spot market, compared with the $150 paid in 2006, according to industry watchers.The supply crunch has thrust the polysilicon business -- once the all but exclusive territory of semiconductor makers -- into high gear. Novel financing deals and new partnerships are afoot, with solar-module makers scrambling to secure long-term deals and chemical manufacturers scrambling to boost factory output by 2008 and beyond.To ensure a steady supply of polysilicon, JA Solar Holdings, SunTech Power Holdings, Canadian Solar Inc.and others have dedicated much of their IPO proceeds to purchases of the raw material.The deals, called "pre-payments," are being used by polysilicon makers to boost production.The situation is more acute for some solar companies than others.Faced with escalating prices and tight supplies, two companies have swapped equity for polysilicon in pacts to help future sales. Those deals have raised eyebrows.South Korea-based DC Chemical Co. acquired a 15% stake in Massachusetts-based Evergreen Solar Inc. in a supply pact that runs through 2014. In another deal, China-based SunTech Power inked a 10-year supply pact with MEMC Electronics Materials Inc., which received a warrant equal to a 4.9% stake in SunTech.The Evergreen-DC Chemical deal, in particular, carried a "steep price to pay for polysilicon supply," said Jeff Osborne, an analyst at CIBC World Markets, which has helped take a number of solar companies public.In mid-April, Evergreen agreed to issue 4.5 million shares of restricted common stock and 625 shares of restricted preferred stock to DC Chemical, which bought 3 million shares of Evergreen at $12.07 each. Under the supply deal, Evergreen is to receive enough polysilicon to make roughly one gigawatt of photovoltaic solar panels through 2014.

Supply crunch

The supply crunch is exerting collatetal pressure on the semiconductor industry, which has long been the primary buyer of polysilicon, the chief material used to make the wafers onto which microchips are stamped."Global warming is not good for the semiconductor industry. The solar industry is growing very rapidly. ... It's really created demand in past several years that wasn't there before," said Tom Linton, who negotiates polysilicon deals for Freescale Semiconductor, one of the world's larger chip manufacturers.This has changed the chip-making business's mindset
Polysilicon crunch
A number of solar panel makers have gone public the past 18 months. Many earmarked IPO proceeds for polysilicon in deals called "pre-payments."
CompanyTickerIPO proceedsPolysilicon pre-pays
JA SolarJASO$259 mln$120 mln
SunTech PowerSTP$455 mln$100 mln
Canadian SolarCSIQ$ 115 mln$30 mln
SolarFun PowerSOLF$150 mln$50 mln
Trina SolarTSL$107 mln$30 mln
   Data: Thomson Financial / company reports
.Before the solar companies came onto the scene in a big way, chip firms usually inked three- to six-month supply contracts with polysilicon producers. Now "you've started to see that elongate towards one- or multi-year contracts," said CIBC's Osborne.The solar market's big polysilicon push came in 2006. For the first time ever, solar-panel makers consumed as much polysilicon as did the chip manufacturers, purchasing more than 50% of the silicon wafers produced in 2006 -- up from 10% in 2000, according to industry sources.Polysilicon prices weigh more heavily on solar-panel makers, with the raw material making up 40% to 45% of the cost of goods per solar cell, compared with just 3% to 7% for a microchip. For that reason, solar-panel makers typically seek six- to 10-year supply contracts, Osborne reported.The polysilicon shortage has stunted the growth of the solar industry, keeping it from expanding faster than the 20% pace it set in 2006, based on the number of installations worldwide. Yet a long-running supply-demand imbalance cannot be assumed, with forecasting polysilicon-market dynamics tricky and growing trickier.For solar-panel manufacturers, future needs hinge on a number of questions:
  • How fast will solar take off in the U.S., Spain and other countries beyond Germany and Japan, the world's two biggest solar-installation markets?
  • How fast will solar-panel prices drop versus the price of electricity?
  • Will other solar technologies challenge the primacy of polysilicon?
"You have some questions there," said Jesse Pichel, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, which has helped raise money for solar-panel makers. "No one is really sure how it will play out."Such factors and others make it "difficult to accurately estimate polysilicon demand for photovoltaic production," agreed Gartner Inc. analyst Takashi Ogawa, who forecasts worldwide polysilicon demand.
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MEMC, Hemlock Semiconductor, Renewable Energy Corp. and DC Chemical are all building or expanding manufacturing sites in a bid to relieve supply pressure. Meanwhile, new entrants are also moving into the market, as 88% of the polysilicon supply is currently controlled by five players.It takes at least two years to construct a polysilicon factory, which cost between $500 million and $1 billion. "The reality is [that] some of these plants may be significantly delayed, and some of the polysilicon makers maybe overstating their plans," Pichel said.By 2010, global polysilicon available for sale is expected to reach 99,500 metric tons, up from 35,400 metric tons in 2006, according to CIBC's latest forecast, issued in late April, which estimates 25% more polysilicon will be available in 2010 than its prior projection.CIBC estimated an "acute shortage" through 2008. Relief could come in 2009 at the earliest, in CIBC's view.But the supply shortage has inspired exploration of alternative solar technologies that don't rely on polysilicon, such as thin-film panels. Whether such alternatives demonstrate efficacy and whether the most ambitious polysilicon-capacity buildouts come to fruition will ultimately have a great deal to do with whether the polysilicon crunch tightens or turns into a glut.


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