LONDON (Reuters) - A glut in solar power will drive yet more bankruptcies this year among panel producers after a brutal 2011, but falls in equipment prices will slow and leading firms may recover as spare capacity goes to the wall.
At the heart of solar power problems is a chronic over-capacity now almost double demand.
As growth has slowed the sector is losing its lustre: initial industry and analyst estimates suggest the market rose by less than 5 per cent last year, compared with a more than doubling in 2010.
Such pessimistic estimates may yet be usurped by a surprise late surge in world leading market Germany, whose industry body on Saturday reported demand last year was about a quarter higher than expectations.
But a sharp slowdown in global demand growth is clear and the sector outlook will depend on new markets, in a shift away from the core western players, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, California and the Czech Republic, as these trim support.
Emerging markets in North America, China and Australia all grew in 2011, while demand exploded twenty-fold in India (to 400 megawatts), according to Goldman Sachs analysis.
India has a target to install as much solar power cumulatively by 2022 as the whole world achieved last year.
The global sector may still earn subsidies but on a smaller scale as prices fall and demand shifts to sunnier countries where the economics stack up better than Germany.
Over-capacity will sow the seeds of a future revival, as an inventory glut tips equipment prices in a downward and rather destructive spiral towards competitiveness with fossil fuels, leaving a trail of failed companies in its wake.
Early industry forecasts suggest global solar installations were almost flat in 2011, at about 20-21 gigawatts (GW) from about 19 GW in 2010, a sharp slowdown in percentage terms compared with previous years.
Such demand is still impressive, however, and belies the small contribution of solar to world power generation at less than 1 per cent of global capacity.
Twenty gigawatts represents about 10 per cent of added global power generation last year, underlining the pace of a marginal shift towards renewable energy.
Slowing demand growth, nevertheless, has added to a glut across the sector, where capacity will be twice utilisation this year according to Goldman Sachs:
"A significant portion of existing capacity is uneconomic and will likely be shut down," its analysts said in a clean energy report published last month.
Stalled demand growth sent prices for solar panels, or modules, crashing 40 per cent in 2011, crushing margins, halving share returns and driving bankruptices, including most notoriously that of US-based Solyndra, after it had won generous US loan guarantees.
A bright spot for 2012 will be a much slower price slide, at about 5 per cent, as uncompetitive companies and capacity go to the wall.
Module makers are guarded over sale prices after declines ushered in more brutal competition.
But leading Chinese manufacturer Yingli said it was now selling at an average of $0.97 per watt, and saw only moderate falls to about $0.90 by year-end 2012. A typical roof-top installation may have a capacity of about 2,500 watts.
By contrast Yingli prices fell 40 per cent last year, from $1.70-$1.75 per watt in January 2011.
"We are seeing a certain level of pricing stabilisation," said Matthew Li, associate director of investor relations.
A longed-for "grid parity" where solar can match gas, coal and nuclear without fickle government support is still a long-term project outside niche markets, however, not least because continuing credit market tightness hinders a technology dependent on upfront capital.
Leading US producer First Solar says it's now focused on "utility-scale" projects in unsubsidised markets, heralding a new strategy after the departure of its former chief executive.
The goal depends among other things on competitive project finance, where the company's strong balance sheet helps.
First Solar sees a slow trajectory of cost cuts in 2012 but accelerating gains in efficiency to convert sunlight into electricity.
It doesn't comment on module prices, but said it was targeting total (so-called levelised) costs of electricity (LCOE) of $0.10-0.14 per kilowatt hour in the long-term.
That's compared with LCOE estimates for the cheapest gas plants now of around $0.10 per KWh or less.
First Solar says it can already in 2012 generate solar power at $0.12-0.15 per KWh in Saudi Arabia, as an example of an ideal location with the most sunlight.