* 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 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
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.
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
"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.