Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Steve Jobs's Lesson for Solar-Power Bulls

The birth of the mouse is a famous cautionary tale from Silicon Valley. In it, Xerox develops an early version of the now-ubiquitous PC pointer, but Steve Jobs and Apple actually make it ubiquitous. The warning—first movers don't always end up dominating a particular field—applies to another hot technology: solar power.

In June 2008, solar-panel manufacturers looked poised to conquer the world. The 12 largest had a combined market value of about $70 billion, according to Sanford C. Bernstein. Today, they are worth about $6.4 billion. One of them, Germany's Q-Cells, QCE.XE +0.78% filed for bankruptcy last week. On the same day First Solar, which alone was worth more than $20 billion in 2008, saw its stock slump by almost 8%. The company is now worth less than $2 billion.

First Solar has suffered several setbacks recently, not least having to make higher warranty provisions because its solar modules may suffer "increased failure rates in hot climates" (think about that one for a second.)

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