ANAHEIM, Calif. -- What are best strategies for tackling what promises to be a great market – the United States?
Over the past year, solar companies have rolled out products and created alliances that they say would better position themselves for the U.S. market. Many of these companies have already expanded thanks to booms in Spain and Germany.
For Taiwan-based Gintech Energy, one of the world's largest solar cell makers, launching its own panel production line is key to wooing customers in the U.S. The company started a subsidiary for solar panel production called Apos Energy, and is building a 40-megawatt solar panel factory near Taipei.
"In the U.S., there aren't many module manufacturers," said J.M. Lee, president of Apos, during an interview at the Solar Power International in Anaheim this week. "This is a big market, so we want to build our name here.
Many companies believe they need different approaches here than in Europe because of the types of incentives and dynamics of the energy market.
China-based Suntech Power, for one, is launching a new line of solar panels with stronger warranties to attract developers of utility-scale projects. Solar panel maker First Solar, in Tempe, Ariz., jumped into the project development business to create demand for its panels.
Companies such as SolarWorld, Schott Solar and Solon, all based in Germany, have built factories in the United States.
Apos's pursuit reflects the difficulties faced by many other companies trying to get a slice of the U.S. market. Gintech started Apos in November 2008, just when the financial market is sinking fast and demand for solar began to drop off quickly worldwide.
The recession affected Gintech, of course. The company had to delay its manufacturing expansion plan. Gintech currently has two factories with a total of 560 megawatts of solar cell production capacity. With demand picking up, the company now plans to expand it to 720 megawatts by the second quarter of 2010.
Apos started contracting with another panel manufacturer to make its panels in the third quarter of this year, Lee said. It makes no sense to start its own factory when there is an oversupply of panels.
The company is building the 40-megawatt factory now, and expects to start production in the first quarter of 2010, Lee said. Apos initially had planned to achieve 100 megawatts in capacity in 2009, according to its website.
Solar equipment makers have seen a perk up in demand in recent months. SunPower, which scaled back the amount of solar panels it bought for power plant projects earlier this year, said last week it would look for new panel suppliers to meet anticipated demand for 2010. The San Jose, Calif.-based company also makes solar panels, but rely on other sources for its project-development business as well.
Apos takes Gintech's cells to make solar panels, and its top product line is a 245-watt panel using multicrystalline cells called Douro that can hit 17.1 percent efficiency.
The average efficiency of the Douro cells rolling off Gintech's plants is 16.8 percent, but Gintech sorts the more efficient ones for producing Apos' highest performing panels, Lee said.
Apos wants to target the commercial and utility markets, and is talking to project developers, including SunPower.
The acquisition of SunEdison by MEMC also could benefit Apos. MEMC sells its silicon wafers to Gintech, and has asked the company to recommend solar panel makers, said Jason Hsieh, senior vice president of international business development at Gintech.
Gintech's customers include Siliken, Conergy, Heckert Solar and Solon, he said.
With its own panel manufacturing, Gintech also would be competing against its own customers, something Hsieh said the company is trying to avoid.