Solar Headwinds, Part II: Competitive Forces Constraining Industry Profitability

by: Tom Konrad, CFA

In the first part of this series, I showed how a competitive analysis of the corn ethanol industry in early 2007 illuminated the forces that soon caused ethanol company stock prices to collapse in late 2007. I also implied that the solar cell manufacturers, including industry leaders such as Sunpower (SPWRA) and First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR) are vulnerable to these forces and may not be able to maintain high returns on capital over the long term.

I'm not predicting that solar stocks will collapse later this year, as happened with ethanol stocks in 2007. The dramatic timing of my article on ethanol companies with the quick collapse of ethanol stocks was coincidental. Competitive analysis of an industry can illuminate long term trends, but short term stock prices often have very little to do with long term trends or underlying economics. Given that solar stocks have fallen considerably over the last two years (see chart), a further drastic decline seems unlikely.

Solar ETFs vs. S&P and Nasdaq
Solar ETFs KWT and TAN compared to market indexes Mar 2008 to Feb 2010.

Yet a recovery in solar stock prices that might bring solar indexes back into line with general market indexes is also unlikely, because the intense competition in the sector restrains the underlying profitability relative to companies in sectors with average levels of competition.

Returning to Michael Porter's classic competitive forces model, here is how solar cell manufacturers stack up:

Force Above Average Below Average Overall Competition
Industry rivalry Large number of firms, High fixed costs, low switching costs, low product differentiation, specialized equipment, diverse companies High market growth, nonperishable product, High
Threat of Substitutes Electricity can be produced in may ways, and is usually more conveniently and cheaply available through the grid Government requirements or subsidies for solar power High
Buyer Power Product is standardized Many diverse buyers Average
Supplier Power Suppliers are concentrated (but becoming less so) Commodity inputs, customers weak Average to Low
Threat of new entrants Constant innovation in solar technology, ability to purchase standardized manufacturing equipment, globally traded product, low minimum economy of scale, little brand franchise Asset specificity, Very high

The key factors keeping competition high are the strong threat of substitutes and rapid innovation bringing new entrants into the industry. Electricity from other sources such as fossil fuels or other renewable generation is functionally indistinguishable from solar electricity, and may be available at night or on cloudy days. Hence they are not only readily available substitutes to solar panels, they are often more convenient to use.

I brought up the specter of innovation in solar technology as a risk factor for solar stocks in my recent article on risks for alternative energy investors. The great hope for the solar industry is that constant innovation will quickly bring down costs to the point where solar power is cost-competitive with electricity from the grid, or grid parity. But that same innovation, if it comes from outside the current industry, will undermine the economics of manufacturers using current technology. The advent of First Solar (FSLR) is a case in point. Because First Solar can produce its CdTe technology at much lower cost per peak watt than conventional silicon manufacturers are able to match, First Solar is able to expand its market share at the expense of other manufacturers while maintaining strong profitability.

But First Solar may only be in its current privileged position for a few years: other thin-film technologies such as Copper-Indium-Galium-diSelenide (Ascent (NASDAQ:ASTI), DayStar (NASDAQ:DSTI), and many private companies) or amorphous Silicon (Applied Materials (NASDAQ:AMAT), Sharp (OTCPK:SHCAY) and many others.) Beyond these up and coming thin-film technologies, there is a constant stream of new innovations such as organic PV and PV from abundant materials (IBM) that could potentially be manufactured at much lower cost than current thin film technologies.

There are also non-photovoltaic competitors. Bloom Energy is trying to present itself as an alternative to solar, but not very credibly.Concentrating Solar Thermal Power (NYSE:CSP) has long had a cost advantage for large scale farms, and has the additional advantage of producing on-demand power because it is simple to integrate with inexpensive thermal storage. PV is not safe from encroaching thermal technologies even at the residential level. One potential challenger is startup Cool Energy. Cool Energy's combined heat and power system uses an array of evacuated solar thermal collectors to provide space heating in cold months, and then uses a Stirling engine to convert excess heat in warmer months into baseload or on-demand electricity.


Because of rapidly falling costs and a vast solar resource, solar PV is likely to produce a significant and growing portion of our electricity in years to come. But this growth trend is an industry trend, and the growth could easily come from new competitors at the expense of current solar stocks.


About this article:

Problem with this article? Please tell us. Disagree with this article? .