Is the silicon shortage in solar ending? Tea leaves mixed

Trina Solar says it will build a billion dollar factory and then four months later says it's cancelled. Is it a sign of the solar boom ending, or just Trina having issues?

Chinese solar panel maker Trina Solar canceled plans to build a plant to make silicon, a move that will no doubt heat up debates over whether the silicon shortage might be coming to a close.

Like a lot of cell and panel makers, Trina laid out plans last year to ramp up production of silicon to help ease the rising prices and supply shortages that have plagued the industry since 2004. Solar panel sales are climbing and there isn't a ton of pure silicon around. The billion dollar plant, slated to begin production in 2012, was announced in December.

The company now says that it has the supplies it needs for now.

"We have made this strategic decision after careful assessment of our raw material requirements, in conjunction with recent and favorable long term polysilicon market and supply condition developments." said Jifan Gao, Trina Solar's CEO in a prepared statement. "Furthermore, we wish to reaffirm our strong working relationship with our partner GT Solar, which continues to provide us with advanced multicrystalline technology platforms to support our target of 350MW of annualized module capacity by the end of 2008."

Some analysts have predicted that supply for silicon solar panels will start to exceed demand in 2009, which in turn will ease the shortage. The reversal in part will come because more factories have come on line, but also because silicon panels will start to face more competition from thin film. Having a brand new factory in 2012 may be a financial burden.

On the other hand, Trina's move might be largely related to internal issues. It's not like the long range forecasts for solar have dramatically altered in four months. In the chip business, companies have done this for years.

Typically, no one worries much with the first cancellation in the chip world, but a second will raise eyebrows. So keep your eyes peeled for a second. That could be the key.

Chinese solar makers have also been engaged in a price war with each other.

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About the author

    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.

     

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