Solar suppliers try to find place in the sun

(Finance & Commerce, October 24, 2011)—On their way to becoming solar-electric panels, more than half of the world’s silicon solar cells produced today reportedly pass through a furnace made by a century-old Lakeville manufacturer.

What’s more, the company only started supplying the solar industry four years ago. Despatch Industries now owns more than 60 percent of the global market for firing furnaces used in solar cell production, according to John Farrell, managing director of Despatch’s solar business group — its largest segment last year.

Despatch has shipped hundreds of solar cell furnaces to China, Taiwan and other Asian countries, where most solar cell manufacturing occurs. Yet its role in the solar industry is mostly unknown in Minnesota.

More than 100 years ago, the company began making heaters for Minneapolis streetcars. Today, Despatch is part of what Lynn Hinkle, policy development director for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, calls the state’s “invisible” solar supply chain, a cluster of companies quietly producing parts and equipment for the global solar industry.

A new push is under way to shine more light on these solar suppliers in hopes of further building up the industry in Minnesota. Continue reading “Solar suppliers try to find place in the sun”

How will Silicon Energy and TenKsolar manage in oversupplied solar panel market?

(Finance & Commerce, October 24, 2011)—Silicon Energy became Minnesota’s second solar-electric panel manufacturer when it started shipping rooftop units from its Iron Range factory in mid-September. It joins Bloomington-based TenKsolar, which began selling its commercial systems in 2010.

The companies are getting a boost from a made-in-Minnesota solar rebate program for Xcel Energy customers. And given the state of the industry, they’ll need all the help they can get.

“New startup companies are going to have a very, very difficult time competing with established companies,” said Junko Movellan, an analyst with Solarbuzz, a market research group in San Francisco. There’s a worldwide oversupply of solar modules now, and she predicts the industry faces a big shakeout in the months ahead.

On top of that, Minnesota isn’t the easiest place to sell solar-electric systems, but not for the reason you might think. Our weather is actually an asset; solar-electric systems perform better in the cold. Rather, it’s the state’s comparatively cheap electricity rates that make it harder for customers to recoup investment costs.

The industry has been called the “solar-coaster” because of all its ups and downs. How do these Minnesota startups plan to hang on? Continue reading “How will Silicon Energy and TenKsolar manage in oversupplied solar panel market?”