Alternative Energy Watch: Solar Winners and Loser; Slowdown in China Wind Growth; Ups and Downs in Energy Storage (SOLR, AMAT, FSLR, ESLR, MXWL, FLEX, JCI, F, GM)

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The alternative energy news for today leads off with (finally) a good quarterly earnings report and a new record conversion rate for flexible thin-film solar PV cells. Wind energy growth in China could be slowing down, and there are a couple of interesting developments in batteries.

GT Solar International, Inc. (NASDAQ: SOLR) reported first-quarter earnings last night and the company posted EPS of $0.41 on revenue of $272 million. Analysts had been expecting EPS of $0.34 on revenue of $224 million, so GT Solar really stomped on the estimates. The company’s shares put up a new 52-week high this morning to post a new 52-week range of $4.96-$13.35.

The company makes the manufacturing equipment for solar PV makers. It took new orders during the quarter of $722 million, and has boosted both its full-year revenue forecast from $850 million-$1 billion to $1-$1.1 billion. The company also raised EPS guidance from $1.25-$1.50 to $1.55-$1.85.

Even though most solar PV makers are expecting an oversupply in 2011, many are going ahead with capacity expansion plans. That gives GT Solar and competitors like Applied Materials, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMAT) some fertile ground for sales in 2011. GT Solar also makes furnaces that are used in the manufacture of LEDs, another product that is expected to see good growth in 2011.

Another solar winner is the flexible thin-film technology known as CIGS, for copper indium gallium diselenide. Swiss scientists have posted a new record for CIGS energy conversion efficiency of 18.7%. The US National Renewable Energy Lab has also tested a CIGS cell that posts an energy conversion efficiency of 19.9%, but that technology is slightly different.

Thin-film leader First Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR) has been working on developing its own CIGS panels, and was once rumored to be in talks to acquire privately held HelioVolt. The rumors haven’t panned out yet, and may never do so. Still, the CIGS technology seems to be a significant jump up in efficiency from the cadmium telluride (CdTe) technology that First Solar currently uses. CIGS technology could also lower total systems costs, called ‘balance of systems’ or BoS cost because they are lighter and don’t require all the heavy support structure of silicon-based PV systems.

The solar loser — again — is Evergreen Solar Inc. (NASDAQ: ESLR), which has seen the state of Massachusetts kill two of the company’s tax breaks following the shutdown of Evergreen’s Devens plant which cost 800 workers their jobs. The state has sent Evergreen a retroactive property tax bill for $1.5 million and has eliminated $7.5 million in tax credits. Evergreen’s shares are trading at $0.76, very close to the bottom of their 52-week range of $0.71-$7.14.

China grew its wind generation capacity by 62% in 2010, to a total of nearly 42,000 megawatts. But the country’s progress may be slowing down this year as a result of the difficulty of connecting wind power plants to the country’s electricity grid. [https://247wallst.com/2011/04/27/alternative-energy-watch-china-plans-to-spend-big-on-grid-equipment-maker-gets-big-order-solr-amat-ldk-cree-veco-amsc/] Approximately 30% of the country’s wind generation is stranded, and there are other troubles as well.

Chinese law requires that 70% of wind projects use local sources and, in many cases, foreign countries that want to build alt energy projects in China must have a China-based partner and must sign a technology transfer agreement. On a more positive note, China has enacted a law mandating compulsory cross-licensing of alt energy technology and recently passed another law that allows companies to obtain a license to use a patent that its owner is not developing. These licensing rules have allowed the country’s big wind turbine manufacturers, Goldwind, Sinovel, and DongFang Electric, to corner more than 50% of the wind turbine market in China.

Ultracapacitor maker Maxwell Technologies, Inc. (NASDAQ: MXWL) and the automotive division of Flextronics International Ltd. (NASDAQ: FLEX) have signed an agreement under which Maxwell will supply its ultracapacitors to Flextronics for use in regenerative braking systems and for start-stop systems in automobiles. Ultracapacitors act like batteries and store/discharge electricity very quickly over a wide range of temperatures and over a large number of cycles.

Finally, a divorce. Johnson Controls Inc. (NYSE: JCI) has filed papers to dissolve its joint venture with France’s Saft Groupe SA. The JV was developing lithium-ion batteries for hybrid and all-electric vehicles. The joint company has deals with Daimler Benz, BMW, China’s Chery, and US carmakers Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) and General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM). Johnson Controls will pay Saft $64 million for its part of the JV.

Paul Ausick