Investors were applauding a new announcement by Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL), after it announced a deal that would see it help to finance and build a massive solar power farm in southwest Yunnan province. The deal should indeed help Trina generate big sales for the near term, as it involves construction of a farm with huge capacity of 300 megawatts of power. But I'm just a bit wary of this kind of development, which will also see Trina pay most of the bills to build the facility.
This kind of creative financing, which sees solar panel makers take big stakes in plant developers and then sell their own panels to the projects, is good when many sophisticated long-term buyers are available to purchase those finished plants upon completion. But China is hardly such a market, and it's far from clear that anyone will be ready to purchase this massive new solar farm from a Trina-controlled entity once construction is complete.
According to Trina's new announcement, the company is taking a 90 percent stake in Yunnan Metallurgical New Energy Co, which will build the new plant in the southwestern Chinese province. (company announcement) Three local partners will hold the remaining 10 percent in the company, whose farm will become the biggest solar power generating facility in Yunnan province.
No financial terms were given, which is slightly unusual as this investment is likely to be quite costly. To put things in perspective, the 300 megawatts in new panel orders Trina is likely to get from the deal are equivalent to nearly a third of the panels it shipped in its most recent reporting quarter, when it generated $519 million in revenue.
Thus if panel prices remain relatively constant, this new plant could generate some $171 million in sales for Trina over the construction period, most likely the next 1-2 years. That means Trina's investment in the developer should total nearly $200 million, again invested over the next couple of years. That's not a small sum for solar panel makers like Trina that are still struggling under big debt burdens following a prolonged downturn for their industry.
Despite that risk, investors cheered the news and bid up Trina shares by 5.6 percent after the announcement. It's probably worth noting that even at their latest closing price of $13.23, Trina's shares are still nearly 30 percent below their peak reached back in March when solar shares were soaring on hopes for a rapid sector recovery. Since then those hopes have been tempered by new punitive anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese solar panels exported to the US, and signs that the EU could take similar steps.
All that said, let's return to the main point, which is that this kind of self-financed plant construction is a risky proposition. This kind of model got former industry pioneer Suntech into big trouble, and ultimately set off a chain of events that led to the company's bankruptcy. Rival Canadian Solar (Nasdaq: CSIQ) has used the model to build smaller plants in Canada, and Yingli (NYSE: YGE) earlier this year set up a similar $160 million fund to build solar plants in China.
Canadian Solar's model has worked in part because most of the plants it has built are in Canada, where big institutional investors exist to buy such plants after their completion. China is still largely an untested market in that regard, and it's quite clear that many local state-run enterprises are participating in these new projects to help Beijing meet its ambitious targets to build up the country's solar power.
Perhaps this new farm is well-designed and a strong long-term buyer will recognize that fact and purchase it after its completion, providing big profits for Trina. But it's equally possible the plant will run into unforeseen problems, which could easily leave Trina with headaches as it figures out what to do with the massive facility.
Bottom line: Trina could be left holding a big pile of problematic debt if its plan to build a massive new solar plant in southwest China runs into difficulties or fails to find a long-term buyer.