Applied Materials' solar chief quashes solar exit rumors


Following Applied Materials‘ decision to end its three-year flirtation with thin film manufacturing equipment in 2010 – and with the company's 2012 financials showing its solar business as a drain on resources – rumors persisted this week of an impending retreat from photovoltaics.

But Charlie Gay, president of Applied Materials' Applied Solar division moved quickly to quash the gossip, telling pv magazine, "The rumor is not true, Applied is fully committed to PV."

With Applied Materials' full year figures for 2012 showing robustness overall, the underperformance of the group's Engineering and Environmental Solutions (EES) business unit was thrown into sharp relief.

EES revenue of US$425 million in 2012 supplied only 5% of the group total, down from the 19% ($1.99 billion) raised in 2011 and the 15% accounted for by revenues of $1.48 billion in 2010.

To compound matters, the EES unit provided a $421 million impairment hit to the fourth quarter figures thanks to an overvaluation of the solar business.

With EES new orders tumbling to just $195 million for the year, compared to $1.68 billion in 2011 and $1.5 billion in 2010, and with operating income adding up to a $668 million loss compared to 2011 income of $453 million, there have been rumblings this week that a solar withdrawal is on the cards.

Falling PV equipment sales

Applied Materials' chastening experience in solar is set against a backdrop of falling photovoltaic equipment manufacturing sales worldwide, which continued last year.

The global figure for invoiced equipment orders in the first quarter, at $695 million, was the lowest seen since industry body SEMI started recording figures at the start of 2010. A 29% quarter-on-quarter rise in booked orders was explained away by a one-off large order in the Rest of The World segment of the market.

Sure enough, bookings fell to $235 million in the second quarter and marginally more, to $234 million, in Q3, the last set of figures available. Meanwhile, billings rose to $706 million in Q2 before retreating again, to $609 million in the latest figures.

It was this trading environment that prompted Applied Materials president Gary Dickerson to talk of a cautious approach to solar in the medium term, writing in the introduction to the 2012 annual report, "We remain confident in the long-term potential of our Energy and Environmental Solutions business and we are making highly selective investments to extend our leadership in new enabling solar technologies.

"Until market conditions improve, we are implementing a significant reduction in our operating expenses to mitigate the impact of this business on our overall corporate earnings."

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