Industry price declines impact Semprius
Because of a global decline in solar panel prices and a difficult investment market, Durham-based Semprius downsized staffing levels last year, officials with the company confirmed.
But Scott Burroughs, vice president of technology for Semprius, also said the company believes solar panel prices and the investor market have improved. The company is looking to close on financing this fall that he said is expected to help boost the company’s production capacity and move it toward its profit targets.
“I think we’ve lived through this valley of darkness, and now it’s just a matter of, over the next few months, trying to close this (financing) out; we do anticipate closing in the third quarter,” said Semprius CEO Joe Carr.
The Durham-based company makes solar modules that it says are unmatched in cost and performance. It makes what’s known as “high-concentration” solar photovoltaic modules.
They differ from traditional solar technology in that they concentrate sunlight onto small solar cells –about the size of a pencil point in Semprius’ case -- to more cost-effectively use the semiconductor material that makes up the cells.
The company launched a pilot production plant in Henderson after receiving commitments for a $600,000 grant from the state, and up to $3 million in tax benefits. The company had planned to create 256 jobs over five years there.
The pay-out of both the grant and tax benefits were contingent on the company’s meeting hiring and other performance targets. Kim Genardo, a spokeswoman for the commerce department, said that to date “no state money has been approved for this project.”
Burroughs said the company’s downsizing was a result of price decreases across the industry, and due to a “very difficult” fundraising environment. The company has not released the size of the downsizing. Carr said the downsizing affected both Henderson and Durham.
“A lot of investors, particularly venture capitalists, have moved on to other investment areas besides solar,” Burroughs said.
According to a report from IBISWorld Inc., the U.S. solar panel industry saw a rapid fluctuation in prices in the five years prior to 2014. Government incentive programs helped boost the industry in 2009 and 2010, but prices dropped in 2011. Low-cost panels, mostly from China, flooded the market, according to the report.
Company revenues followed the price declines, according to the report. The report expects many unprofitable companies to get out of the business in the next five years.
But Burroughs said Semprius officials believe the climate for investments in solar has improved, and prices are increasing.
“The problem is that over the last four or five years, solar has gotten a very bad name in the investment community,” Carr said. “We have seen a dramatic turn in interest in funding of solar now,” he added.
The money they are looking to close on in the fall would finance capital equipment to allow the company to increase the plant’s production capacity and cover operating and research and development expenses, Burroughs said.
Until the company has raised that investment capital, he said Semprius is using bridge loans to help finance its operations.
“I’ll be honest – it’s a difficult environment, but because prices are starting to increase and volumes are starting to increase,” Burroughs said. “We’re starting to see the climate finally starting to improve from an investment standpoint.”
Semprius officials consciously chose not to get into the market in a “big way,” he said. The company started production, but at a low volume. Right now, Carr said they have 14 demonstration systems installed globally. Carr said they’re looking to increase their capacity at the Henderson plant to be able to turn out panels that can produce 100 megawatts, and once they hit that mark, they’ll be competitive with Chinese manufacturers on a dollar-per-watt basis.
“We are confident that once we get to scale, we will be able to compete with the Chinese imports and in fact, we will be able to beat them on a dollar-per-watt basis, which will lead to even more revenue,” Burroughs said. “The challenge for us is simply completing our fundraising.”
Finlay Colville, vice president at the solar market research firm SolarBuzz, said in an email that Semprius was affected by the price declines of conventional solar cells, even though the company is a maker of the non-conventional, high-concentration photovoltaic models. Colville leads the solar market research firm’s team of analysts who track the photovoltaic solar market.
Colville said that’s because the “whole proposition” from companies developing concentrator solar cells – which focus sunlight to a smaller area, requiring less silicon semiconductor material in each cell – was that the price of silicon was very high a few years ago.
“In the last few years, silicon price has come down an order of magnitude,” he said. “Therefore using less silicon is no longer a big deal - in fact it's a very much smaller part of the overall module costs.”
Although the concentrator cells are “still very niche,” he said, there is a market for that cell for certain applications, such as space-based uses, and for locations that receive strong sunlight.
But Carr said that even though the price of silicon has fallen, the company is still competitive on price. He said that because of the design of their technology, they use a 1/1000th of the amount of the material in a standard photovoltaic module, the cost is a tenth of the cost of a standard silicon module. And they’re working to make their cells and modules as a whole more efficient.
“With the funding that we’re gaining traction on now, we’ll be profitable,” Carr said. “Our challenge has been to get over the stigma of solar that’s been generated over the last couple of years to convince investors that we are, in fact, different.”