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Solar flameout continues

No. 1 maker of panels in process of huge staff cut

– First Solar Inc.’s decision to fire 30 percent of its staff and reduce production shows that even the biggest solar panel makers aren’t immune from the shakeout that has bankrupted at least eight companies on two continents in the past year.

The largest thin-film solar producer said last week it will cut 2,000 jobs by the end of the year at a cost of as much as $370 million.

It marks the biggest staff reduction for the industry since bankrupt Solyndra, backed by U.S. government loans, dismissed its 1,100 employees on Aug. 31.

Solar manufacturers, which expanded rapidly to meet double-digit demand growth in the past decade, are struggling with subsidy cuts in Europe and plunging natural-gas prices that make renewable energy less competitive. The largest producers in China say their profits will slump this year as shipments grow.

“Oversupply has become a problem for the entire industry,” said Ben Schuman, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities in Portland, Ore. “China’s manufacturers have not demonstrated rational behavior.”

Solar panel prices have fallen 46 percent in the past year as manufacturers led by First Solar and Suntech Power Holdings, the world’s largest solar company, boosted output. Germany and Italy, the two biggest markets, are cutting rates paid for solar power to curb an uncontrolled installation boom.

Germany’s Q-Cells SE, once the world’s biggest solar-cell maker, filed for insolvency on April 3, becoming the fourth casualty in the country since December. Solon, Solar Millennium and Solarhybrid have all filed for insolvency as Germany cut incentives and China’s suppliers reduced prices.

They join Solyndra and three other U.S. solar companies that have failed since August, SpectraWatt, Evergreen Solar and Energy Conversion Devices.

Solar factories have expanded faster than demand and will be able to make up to 38 gigawatts of panels this year, about 54 percent more than estimated demand, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

That excess supply will arrive on the market as Europe’s largest economies, including Britain, Spain and France, follow Germany and Italy in scaling back incentives to curtail installation of power systems that are paid above-market rates.

“Demand is falling as governments, particularly in Europe, lose appetite for subsidizing the industry,” said Theodore O’Neill, an analyst at Wunderlich Securities.

The shifting support in Europe is particularly painful to First Solar because it favors rooftop power systems, which are more likely to use Chinese polysilicon panels. First Solar focuses instead on ground-mounted utility-scale plants that use its thin-film products, he said.

The U.S. Commerce Department, responding to complaints from U.S. solar manufacturers that Chinese competitors receive unfair government support, imposed tariffs last month of as much as 4.73 percent on panels made in China.

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