First Solar to lose top EPC spot: IHS

China’s TBEA SunOasis is set to overtake First Solar this year as the world’s largest solar EPC player, and Chinese companies will further dominate the list in the coming years as North America grows cold on mega-PV, claims market researcher IHS.

TBEA SunOasis was the world’s second largest solar EPC contractor last year, putting up 1GW – against number one First Solar’s 1.1GW, according to IHS.

Rounding out the top five were two more Chinese players – GD Solar and Shanghai Solar Energy, which installed 715MW and 550MW, respectively – and US-based SunEdison, which installed 505MW.

The final list from 2013 underscores just how volatile the Chinese market is, with IHS having predicted last summer that China Power Investment Corporation would be the largest EPC player in China. In the end, CPIC did not make the global top five.

In spite of its likely loss of the top spot this year, First Solar’s EPC position is dominant in the relatively high-margin North American market, where it installed a stunning 22% of non-residential PV capacity last year.

By contrast, TBEA SunOasis accounted for 10% of China’s non-residential PV additions last year.

But many analysts believe that the demand for mega-PV projects is fizzling out in North America, and will shift ever increasingly towards modestly sized ground-mount arrays and rooftops – a trend that was underscored by First Solar’s recent push towards the commercial and industrial rooftop segment.

Importantly, First Solar has established firm roots in a number of emerging markets, with 1GW pipelines in both Latin America and the Middle East.

But, notes Josefin Berg, senior analyst for solar demand at IHS, “while the development pipeline in emerging countries has given the company a good start, it will be much more challenging to pursue than home-based projects in the US”.

93% of the capacity First Solar takes on line as EPC contractor this year will come in the US.

“After 2015, depending on the evolution of solar support in the US, First Solar risks slower growth in PV system integration,” says Berg.

While both First Solar and SunEdison have had early successes diversifying beyond North America, they will increasingly find themselves competing against Chinese EPC rivals.

TBEA SunOasis, for example, is building a 100MW PV plant in Pakistan this year.

While Chinese players are beginning to encroach on turf previously held by US companies, they have already blown their European rivals out of the water.

EU-based solar EPCs that used to be regular features atop global lists are now nowhere to be seen, including German players like Belectric, Juwi and Enerparc.

At present there is just 600MW of PV under construction in Europe, compared to 4.9GW in North America, and 2.3GW in China, IHS says.