By Eric Wesoff
CIGS solar vendor Ascent Solar (NASDAQ:ASTI) has found a savior. A few months ago, we had begun to prepare the obituary for the flexible CIGS solar manufacturer,one of the casualties of the solar shakeout. In April, the Thornton, Colorado-based Ascent had a market capitalization of $69 million. 2010 sales were a mere $811,000. The market capitalization of the company has since dropped to $23.78 million.
At the end of the first quarter of 2011, the firm was in the midst of a major strategy shift, moving from building-integrated and building-applied PV to niche markets like military and defense; off-grid charging solutions in developing countries; power for portable electronics; and products for rooftop integration on buses, trucks and trains. Ascent believed that it could sell its products in these markets at more attractive margins than were possible for ground-mount applications or BIPV markets.
The company was also reducing staff, cutting back on operating expenses, and switching CEOs -- not signs of a thriving company. At that time, the firm was awaiting word on a DOE Loan Guarantee for its planned FAB3 production line with a nameplate capacity of 150 megawatts per year. The DOE might be a little flinchy on loan guarantees furnished to marginal firms, given the recent political spotlight shone on these activities.
But in a global solar market all about ramping up big and scrubbing cost out, Ascent seemed to have surrendered, resigning itself to solar luggage and battery chargers a la Konarka. The firm seemed to be leaving massive and growing residential, commercial and utility markets to the big boys and the CIGS startups like Solyndra (SOLY), MiaSolé, NanoSolar, and Solar Frontier that are playing a much higher-stakes game. Today's quarterly earnings statement, given the current punishing market, only seems to suggest more bad news.
But Ascent has found a savior, one that's shifted the company's strategy back to rooftops. The firm is being bailed out, big time, by an Asian conglomerate called TFG Radiant, which has signed a long-term strategic partnership including investment, a joint development agreement, and construction of a fab in East Asia. TFG Radiant Group is a joint venture of Radiant Group, a Chinese construction and real estate conglomerate, and Tertius Financial Group, a Singapore-based investment firm.
The release declares the deal to be worth approximately $450 million. According to the company, TFG Radiant has purchased 6,400,000 shares of Ascent stock at a price of $1.15 per share ($7.36 million), which represents a premium of 56 percent relative to the closing price of Ascent stock on August 12. TFG Radiant has rights to purchase additional shares at an even higher price. TFG Radiant also has the exclusive East Asian license for the technology.
What does this mean? Michael Kanellos, editor-in-chief of GTM, suggests it indicates that China is more open to innovation than the U.S. (he offers up the Asian customer list of Innovalight as an additional example).
But here's the problem. Regardless of the new owner or cash infusion, Ascent's flexible CIGS-based solar modules on polymide substrates are widely viewed to have a capex that is considerably higher than the industry average. Conversion efficiencies are in the single digits.Unless the Asian conglomerate can scrub out lots of cost and bump up efficiency, Ascent's technology and economics are playing catch-up behind the crystalline silicon vendors and the thin film leaders.
TFG Radiant will build its first facility in China, with a projected investment of more than $165 million and an annual production capacity of 100 megawatts.
We'll have a better idea of just what TFG Radiant acquired at this afternoon's quarterly earnings call from Ascent.