Germany's solar sell-off: picking up the remaining pieces

Thu Mar 6, 2014 3:00am EST

* Germany a hunting ground for foreign solar investors

* Demand stoked by wave of insolvencies

* Analysts see larger conglomerates as driving force

* Solar market set to pick up globally

By Christoph Steitz

FRANKFURT, March 6 (Reuters) - Foreign investors are looking to snap up what is left of Germany's once-booming solar industry, in time to benefit from an expected global recovery in the sector.

During the last decade, Germany pioneered the solar industry by throwing billions of euros in subsidies at it, making it the world's largest market for solar panels in the process.

But a massive shakeout during the last three years, triggered by plunging state support for solar energy, led to a wave of insolvency filings and turned Germany into a hunting ground for foreign investors looking to buy assets - from solar panel factories to retail operations - on the cheap.

A diverse group of parties, including small boutique outfits and large industrial conglomerates, has emerged, and analysts believe they will remain in the chase for Germany's insolvent solar groups, lured by engineering expertise and strong brands as well as an expanding market.

According to estimates from industry association EPIA, the global market for solar panels is set to increase by between 13 and 19 percent over the next three years, compared with just 2.3 percent in 2012.

Annual growth rates peaked at 160 percent during the boom years of 2007 to 2011.

"It's quite ironic that Germany's solar industry now ends up as prey after fuelling the sector's growth for years. And we haven't seen the end of it," said Ash Sharma, senior director at research firm IHS.

Sharma said he expected conglomerates to be the driving force behind the consolidation, pointing to recent transactions including last year's takeover of U.S.-based Power-One by Swiss ABB and General Electric's acquisition of a stake in solar company First Solar.

GE and ABB both declined to comment when asked whether they were interested in buying solar assets in Germany.

Meanwhile, new assets have appeared. Germany's SAG Solarstrom, which builds and operates solar power plants, and Centrosolar both filed for insolvency late last year.

The latter said last week it was looking for a buyer for Renusol, a unit that makes solar module mounting systems.

DRAMATIC SHIFT

In their search for cheap assets, investors' main focus is on German expertise in engineering and technology, as well as global sales operations, developed during the last decade when the industry was awash with lavish subsidies.

Germany's Conergy is a case in point.

Once Europe's largest solar company by sales, Conergy last year succumbed to the global shakeout and filed for insolvency, having suffered for years from cheaper Asian rivals and plunging feed-in tariffs in Germany.

"The last three years have been quite dramatic for the whole sector," said Philip Comberg, Conergy's former chief executive. "Nearly all of Germany's large solar group had to undergo massive restructuring," he added.

Following the collapse, Conergy was split up and sold in parts, with it module production plant in eastern Germany being snapped up by Chinese manufacturer Astronergy last year, keen on the company's "made in Germany" premium.

Even though about a quarter of the plant's workforce was cut at the time, the acquisition was actually welcomed by many in a region that has high unemployment.

Most of Conergy's global sales operations, however, went to Kawa, a U.S.-based investor, in a bid to gain access to countries including Australia, Britain, Thailand, Canada and the United States.

"Conergy is the BMW of solar," said Andrew de Pass, partner at Kawa, referring to Germany's benchmark status in the automotive sector.

"We bought Conergy because it has know-how, expertise and a proven track record which is unique," he added.