Global PV sector veering towards oversupply, Trina warns

Trina Solar, the world’s largest PV module maker, warned investors that a new round of solar factory expansions led by the Chinese may once again tip the global PV industry into a state of oversupply as soon as late 2016.

But the growing risk of a new market glut is not enough for Trina to veer away from its own expansion plans, with a new cell and module factory under construction in Thailand and due for completion this year, and another one recently acquired in the Netherlands. 

Trina has “come to the conclusion” that “oversupply could occur, especially in the second half of the year”, chief financial officer Teresa Tan said in a conference call on Thursday.

The impact of an oversupplied module market “may not be so positive” for Trina’s bottom line, Tan acknowledges.

But Trina has “taken that risk into consideration” as it continues to expand its own production capacity, she says. The company plans to grow its in-house cell capacity from 3.5GW to 5GW this year, and its module capacity from 5GW to 6GW.

Most of that expansion will take place outside of China, as Trina looks to evade trade tariffs and other barriers in place in key markets like the US and Europe. Overseas production capacity is “very much needed” at Trina, Tan says.

Within China, the company will continue outsourcing production when needed to ride out any fluctuations in the global supply-demand balance, she says.

Tan admits that the company's margin would come under pressure in the event of a glutted module market, but says it will be partly offset by the company's growing projects business, where margins are higher.

The global PV manufacturing sector has largely recovered from the last industry downturn, which was sparked by vast amounts of new production capacity coming online in China. With the exception of Yingli, most top-tier cell and module makers have several years of profitability behind them.

New York-listed Trina reported a net profit of $76.5m in 2015, or $0.86 per diluted share, up from a surplus of $59.3m the year prior.

In the call, Trina emphasized its fast-growing downstream projects business, which is expected to bring online 750MW-850MW of solar-generation capacity this year, compared to 686MW in 2015.

2015 was a breakout year for the company’s downstream arm.

Chief executive Jifan Gao says Trina will make a “strategic shift” in its downstream business this year, moving from maintaining ownership of all the projects it builds to selling a large proportion of them – helping the company “maintain a healthy cash flow, improve our liquidity, and mitigate risk”.

Tan says Trina intends to sell as much as 500MW of operating capacity in 2016, and while noting that the market for such projects in China is “still developing”, she adds that there are many interested buyers.

“Not only big power-plant companies, but also other companies who want to get into this business, including insurance companies and funds who are interested in having assets with steady income like solar projects generate,” she says. “We’re seeing a diversity of [prospective] buyers, including state-owned enterprises.”