Siemens Says Auf Wiedersehen To Solar

If you don’t mind a little risk, it might be a good time to be buying solar businesses. Lots of sellers out there.

The latest to join the get-out-now club is the German industrial giant Siemens, which said on Monday that it would sell off its solar businesses, led by a concentrating solar power unit that was caught with a technology losing popularity in a stagnant market.

Siemens solar sell-off solel

image via Siemens

It was just three years ago this month that Siemens announced it was spending $418 million to acquire Solel Solar Systems, a company that had been doing well selling components for utility-scale parabolic-trough solar thermal plants, particularly in Spain. These plants consist of long rows of curved, sun-tracking mirrors that focus sunlight on a fluid-filled receiver tube running directly above the mirrors. The heated fluid is then used to create steam to drive a generator.

But it wasn’t long after the Solel acquisition that the utility-scale solar market began to shift. Plunging panel prices made photovoltaics a good option. And even where the concentrating/thermal model was preferred, power tower technology – using arrays of big mirrors to focus sunlight on a giant tower – often moved to the fore.

We see such towers going up in California, with BrightSource’s big Ivanpah project, and SolarReserve is at work on the Crescent Dunes plant in Nevada. More power tower plants are crowding what Siemens said was a shrinking pipeline for concentrated solar.

“The global market for concentrated solar power has shrunk from 4 gigawatts to slightly more than 1 GW today. In this environment, specialized companies will be able to maximize their strengths,” Michael Süß, CEO of Siemen’s energy sector, said in a statement.

Solel founder Avi Brenmiller is said to be considering making a bid for his old business. Brenmiller told Reuters that his new company, Brenmiller Energy, is looking to pair thermal solar with natural gas in power plants. That would make for a steady supply of energy and, depending on the market, could bring down the cost (gas is cheap in the U.S., but not everywhere). And price is, always, the market driver.

The pressure from vastly cheaper PV has hurt concentrating solar – but it has also hurt plenty of PV companies. The Santa Clara, Calif., thin-film startup MiaSole, after taking in around a half-billion dollars in private money, was gobbled up for $30 million by China’s Hanergy Holding Group a few weeks ago. As reported by Reuters, that prompted Raymond James analyst Pavel Molchanov to say in a message to clients,  “Here is the latest entry to the list of PV manufacturers getting bought for pennies on the dollar.”

Still, it is important to note that while the solar sector is grinding through a torturous realignment after building wildly excessive capacity, and demand growth has slowed, more and more solar continues to be installed.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

1 Comment

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    As soon as liquid-metal batteries begin hitting the market in grid-ready configurations, renewables are going to get a HUGE boost in market demand.

    Without a storage medium, most renewables are a gamble. They can’t provide reliable power to the grid 24/7 so utility companies have to build in extra oil/gas/coal capacity and just not use it. That keeps demand for solar/wind relatively low.The instant a cheap storage medium is available, demand is going to absolutely skyrocket.

    The cheapest option wins out when demand is low, but if demand is high, there’s a very real possibility that the cheapest option won’t be able to keep pace with demand. If they can manufacture and install grid-scale concentrating solar faster than PV production can keep up, then it might be foolish to dump Solel now.
    Especially if it turns out that the heat generated by solar-thermal can actually be useful to the battery tech.

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