Prospects Brighten for B.C. Solar Technology Companies

July 4, 2006
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When a 450-unit housing development in Roseville, California, is completed in two years, it will be one of the largest solar-powered communities in the United States, thanks in part to technology spawned in B.C.

Xantrex Technology Inc. (TSX: XTX), a Burnaby-based power electronics company, is riding a growing renewable energy wave it hopes will further increase company profitability – a realm it re-entered in the first quarter of 2006 after its financial results took a “wrong direction” in the latter part of 2005. Its earnings that year plunged to US$341,000 from US$7.6 million in 2004.

“To improve it takes a few quarters, so this is the beginning of the turnaround,” said Xantrex’s chairman Mossadiq Umedaly.

Xantrex reported first quarter revenues of US$34.7 million in May, a slight improvement over 2005’s first quarter, but its net income dropped to US$705,000 from US$1.5 million.

Prior to Umedaly giving up the reins as Xantrex’s CEO to Ray Rosewall in 2004, the company’s results were improving, but by mid-2005, Umedaly realized Rosewall wasn’t a good fit for Xantrex and replaced him with Ford Motor Co. veteran John Wallace.

Growth in the use of solar and wind power in incentive-rich European countries and recently in the U.S., where Xantrex’s market share has increased to over 50 per cent, is providing more opportunities for its products, which include solar/wind inverters and battery chargers.

Xantrex, with headquarters in B.C. and facilities in the U.S., Spain and England, surpassed 100 megawatts of commercial solar grid tie inverter installations in the U.S. market in June. It installed more than 30 megawatts of inverters in the past year alone.

Unlike in Canada, where solar advocates bemoan the lack of incentives, the U.S. has introduced measures that are making renewable power more attractive and cost-effective.

Approved in January, the California Public Utilities Commission’s California Solar Initiative increases the state’s solar incentives to US$3.2 billion over the next 11 years.

In May, U.S.-based solar firm PowerLight Corp. selected Xantrex’s residential grid tie solar inverters to supply solar power to a new 450-unit housing development in Roseville.

With solar energy use being made more attractive by generous federal and state incentives, Americans can now move into new homes with an established solar power system, said Umedaly.

The prospects for wind power are also improving in Canada, where Ontario has announced a renewable energy incentive program. In Nova Scotia and Quebec, Xantrex is looking to work with two German companies, Gentec Inc. and Controle Electricque R.K. Inc., to set up wind converter manufacturing capabilities to support local content requirements for wind energy contracts tendered by Hydro Quebec.

Xantrex launched seven new products during its current first quarter, and Umedaly said it has more in the works.

And with both it and Victoria-based solar company Carmanah Technologies Corp. (TSX:CMH) in a “really hot space,” with very high solar demand, their prospects are brightening, said MacMurray Whale, a Toronto analyst with Sprott Securities Inc.

“They haven’t looked better, actually,” he said of Xantrex, whose shares, which plunged to $5 last August, were trading recently at $8.50. “They had to get their act together, obviously internally… they’ve done that and that’s part of what helped them get back to profitability, giving some indication that the rest of the year should be better.”

Carmanah is also making international waves with its solar power products. It now has more than 250,000 installations worldwide, including $1.6 million worth of solar LED-illuminated lighting scheduled for installation at bus stops throughout the city of London, England, starting this month.