Sharp Solar Losses Narrow as Panel Sales Rise in Japan

Sharp Corp. said its operating loss from manufacturing solar cells narrowed in the third quarter as sales in Japan increased following the introduction of a government subsidy for the technology.

The loss of 1.9 billion yen ($21 million) for the three months through Dec. 31 compared with a shortfall of 5.3 billion yen in the fiscal second quarter and 6.2 billion yen during the third quarter of 2011. Japan in July started a feed-in tariff guaranteeing above market prices for solar power.

Sharp, which started in the solar business in 1959 and remains its oldest major manufacturer, relies on Japan for 80 percent of its sales in the business. It’s trimming operations in the U.S. and Europe because of the losses in the face of competition from bigger Chinese panel makers.

“In a fight against Chinese makers, Sharp is not cost competitive,” Yoshihisa Toyosaki, an analyst at Architect Grand Design, an electronics research and consulting company in Tokyo, said by phone yesterday. “Even though the company’s shipments are increasing, unit prices are falling.” That, he said, means that volume increase doesn’t boost profit because panels are cheaper.

Solar sales rose 14 percent worldwide from a year earlier to 55.9 billion yen. Sharp didn’t give an exact breakdown for sales and losses between the foreign and domestic solar units.

In a statement to investors, the Osaka-based company said it’s working to “accelerate business restructuring” by scaling back its thin-film solar panel manufacturing and its operations in the U.S. and Europe. Sharp officials at a press briefing didn’t give details about the plan for the solar business.

“We are reducing the ratio of European and the U.S. businesses as part of measures to improve our earning structure,” Sharp President Takashi Okuda said at a press conference in Tokyo last night. He said the ratio of solar markets at home and abroad will remain the same for some time.

Sharp plans to sell its stake in an Italian thin-film panel plant opened in July 2011 with the help of partners Enel Green Power SpA and STMicroelectronics NV, Kyodo News reported on Dec. 31. It also has a factory for thin-film panels in Osaka.

Sharp opened its factory on the Italian island of Sicily near Catania in 2011. It’s run by the 3Sun joint venture with Enel Green Power and STMicroelectronics and makes thin film cells and modules. Its initial capacity was about 160 megawatts a year and is the largest solar factory in Italy.

Its other overseas solar plants include one in Wrexham, Wales, where it boosted output to 500 megawatts in 2011 and employment to 1,100 people. In Memphis, Tennessee, it has 400 employees making about 160 megawatts of solar cells, according to Sharp’s website.

Sales of Sharp’s solar products fell during the nine months ended Dec. 31 by 6.5 percent to 149 billion yen from the same period a year earlier as declining demand in overseas markets, especially in Europe, offset growth in the Japanese market, according to a company filing.

The company raised its outlook for sales in the solar division for the fiscal year ending March 31 to 245 billion yen, from 230 billion yen, and expects operating loss to narrow to 11 billion yen from an earlier estimate of 14 billion yen.

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