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Solar cells move along the production line at the Trina Solar Ltd. factory in Changzhou, China.

Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Solar manufacturers that are ramping up production now face a looming glut of panels, forcing companies to adjust or face dire consequences.

Trina Solar Ltd., Canadian Solar Inc. and JinkoSolar Holding Co. are among the suppliers boosting output at factories that will expand global capacity by 18 per cent this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The manufacturers are locked in a race to build bigger and more advanced factories to crank out panels faster and more cheaply. Just as they start rolling off the lines, demand is expected to slow, especially in China where the government rolled back subsidies last month. Prices are slumping, and suppliers expect margins to slip as well. It's a pattern we've seen before, after a global oversupply five years ago drove dozens of companies out of business.

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"Oversupply appears to be business as usual in the solar industry," said Jenny Chase, New Energy Finance's lead solar analyst.

The solar industry went through a similar boom-bust cycle after capacity grew faster than demand, triggering a two-year slump starting in late 2011. The result was a wave of consolidation as prices plunged and panel makers' losses piled up. Cheap panels also helped spur demand for more solar power, eventually prompting the survivors to expand production.

Prices, margins

"These companies are all fighting for market share and their tendency is to build more and more capacity," Pavel Molchanov, an analyst at Raymond James Financial Inc., said in an interview. "Ultimately that drives down prices and margins for everyone."

Canadian Solar, the second-largest manufacturer, is building a 350-megawatt facility in Brazil, and JinkoSolar is expanding output from a 450-megawatt factory that went into operation in Malaysia last year.

This comes as demand slows in China, the world's largest market, where the government is reducing subsidies for solar farms commissioned after June 30. That fuelled a rush of projects in the first half of the year as developers added as much as 22 gigawatts before the subsidy expired, said Hugh Bromley, a New Energy Finance analyst. With the lower subsidy in place, he expects about six to eight gigawatts of new solar projects in the second half.

Trina, the world's largest panel maker, said earlier this week that shipments will fall as much as 6.5 per cent in the third quarter, to between 1.55 and 1.65 gigawatts. At the same time, the company has increased production capacity 7.1 per cent after opening a 500-megawatt factory in Thailand in March. Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. said Tuesday that it expects shipments to slip as much as 54 per cent in the current quarter, after 60 per cent of its panels went to China in the second quarter.

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"Chinese solar manufacturers now face tougher competition due to a supply capacity increase and a decrease in market demand," Jingfeng Xiong, Yingli Green Energy's vice-president and chief climate officer, said during a call Tuesday with analysts.

To be clear, demand for solar is continuing to rise, but that growth is slowing. Global installations this year may reach about 67 gigawatts, up 27 per cent from last year, according to New Energy Finance. In 2017, it's expected to increase by 25 per cent, and in 2018 it will rise 23 per cent.

It's hard to pinpoint whether supply has already eclipsed demand since companies won't report whether their shipments have been affected by the reduced subsidy in China until the fourth quarter. Evidence is mounting, however, that the glut has already arrived. Panel prices are at a record low of 44.7 cents a watt after plunging 10 per cent in the past six weeks. Prices may fall another 15 per cent by the end of the year, according to Patrick Jobin, an analyst at Credit Suisse Group AG.

Solar consolidation

While the last supply glut ravaged the solar industry, it may have less impact this time because the supply chain is more consolidated. The market has fundamentally changed, with 90 per cent of sales going to a handful of the biggest companies, compared with 66 per cent four years ago, said Xiaoting Wang, a New Energy Finance analyst. Industry leaders, such as Trina and Canadian Solar, have expanded beyond manufacturing, diversifying their revenue by developing solar farms.

"We have prepared ourselves much better than in the past," Canadian Solar chief executive officer Shawn Qu said during an Aug. 18 conference call with analysts. While the company is still expanding production, it's pulling back, with capacity expected to reach 5.8 gigawatts by year-end instead of an earlier plan to reach 6.4 gigawatts.

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It's unclear how long a supply glut may last. Mr. Wang, of New Energy Finance, said it may take two years to work through surplus capacity.

The key is how the companies react, whether they take a cautious approach or continue the race to build more factories, according to Merry Xu, chief financial officer at Trina.

"It just depends on the strategic approaches of our peers," Ms. Xu said on a call with analysts Tuesday. "We do hope that this imbalance won't last very long."

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