Earlier this year Amonix laid off staff and Soitec posted losses. Just blips? Signs of a deeper underlying malaise? Analysts and CPV executives offer their insights on this cyclical crossroads.
May was a difficult month for CPV. Two of the biggest names in the industry, Amonix and Soitec, were seeing layoffs and losses respectively, according to press reports. In the current market conditions, it is natural to question whether this was more than just a momentary hiccup.
Soitec, at least, appears to be in the clear, although the financials are suffering like many nascent technologies, especially in the CPV solar space. Citing 2011 losses of €44.9m, almost double the 2010 figure, the industry newsletter GreentechSolar had reported: “The firm’s solar division (gained from its acquisition of Concentrix) is bleeding cash.”
But Camille Darnaud-Dufour, vice president of communications at Soitec, says that now “we are in a completely different situation. We are hiring.”
The company has a current pipeline of 350MW in projects, of which 305MW are in California.
Gearing up to deliver these projects accounts for the strain on profits, Darnaud-Dufour indicates.
“Of course we are in a period of transition as the ramp up of our solar business has led to a period of heavy investments, but one that will enable us to pursue this strategy on an industrial scale and deliver revenue stream within the next fiscal year,” she says.
Soitec is setting up a facility in the San Diego area which, when complete, will employ 450 people and be able to deliver 200MW of production a year. “We are also raising our production capacity in Freiburg, Germany,” Darnaud-Dufour says.
“In the light of all this, we have doubled our employee count in the solar business within the last year and we will continue to hire both in Germany and San Diego. To be more specific, we hired approximately 30 people in Frieburg and 30 people in San Diego during the past six months.”
Soitec’s solar division has the advantage of being backed by a listed manufacturing giant that can afford to take a hit in order to build a viable CPV business. The situation with Seal Beach, California-based Amonix, however, is less clear-cut.
The company, which has the longest track record of real-world deployments in the industry, was reported to be laying off 76 employees.
The redundancy programme, uncovered in a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification filed with the California Employment Development Department, followed the untimely passing of Amonix’s chief executive Brian Robertson in a plane crash in December last year. Following this tragedy, which rocked the solar sector, the company has been looked after by executives hired through its venture capital backers, Kleiner Perkins.
Leadership and legacies
The layoffs were due to start at the end of last month and were in a variety of manufacturing, planning, research and development, and other positions at the company’s headquarters and Torrance, California, labs, according to a Dow Jones report.
Amonix has made no official comment on the redundancies and did not respond to a request for information from PV Insider.
Jan van Dokkum, an operating partner at the Amonix investor Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, stepped into an interim chief executive role in January this year but no longer appears to be affiliated to the company.
Instead, Amonix currently lists its founder, chief technology officer and board of directors chairman Vahan Garboushian as the company head, with nobody in the chief executive role.
If these recent reports point to deeper challenges at Amonix then it would be a shame as the company was doing well until not long ago.
Last October it celebrated powering North America’s largest utility-scale CPV plant, a 5MW facility in Hatch, New Mexico, owned and operated by NextEra Energy Resources. And a year ago Amonix inked a deal with Thermax Limited to export CPV technology to India.
“Concentrated PV will be a game changer in solar power generation technologies because of the substantially high efficiency it offers,” said Thermax’s managing director and chief executive MS Unnikrishnan at the time.
“India, with its above-average solar incidence, is an ideal location for CPV technology and we expect our national solar mission to act as a catalyst for its growth. We are happy to partner with Amonix, a global leader of this technology.”
However, a peek at the PV Insider CPV World Map 2012 shows the technology has so far failed to make much of a dent in the Indian market, with just one plant currently in development at Lonavala.
Breaking into the Indian market was always going to be tough given the predominance of thin film and latterly flat-plate PV there. And with PV overcapacity at record levels, CPV will continue to face a rocky ride in most markets.
That is why Dr Andrew Skumanich, founder and chief executive of SolarVision Consulting, believes the problems at Amonix may not just be an isolated incident.
“The recent layoffs in CPV are a combination of multiple factors; a shake out in the entire industry for PV, and a shake out in CPV as a more complex segment with higher costs,” he asserts. “I don’t think that the worst is over for CPV.”
Perhaps we will see some more job cuts in this segment. I would almost say it is a certainty due to an overall crunch in the solar sector in general. But through tough times come some of the strongest companies, whose management teams see opportunities when others see red. In the course of 18 months it is likely that these management teams will survive or even prosper either through strategic partnership agreements, manufacturing innovation and cost efficiencies or by entering new markets yet to feel the strain of the European debt crisis or volatile government-led energy policies.
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