BONN, Germany, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Ailing German solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld AG completed a financial restructuring this week as prospects for foreign demand seemed to be brightening.
SolarWord, Germany's biggest solar panel maker, began a debt reduction effort early last year in an effort to stave off bankruptcy in the face of a flood of low-priced Chinese imports into the European market.
Under its proposal, creditors and shareholders were asked to take a "haircut" on the nearly $1.3 billion owed by the company. They approved a debt-to-equity swap deal in August, and the company announced Monday it has succeeded in completing the restructuring, under which its debt load had been halved to $587 million.
With the financial moves completed, SolarWorld can now proceed with a previously announced takeover of a shuttered "thin film" production plant in Erfurt, Germany, once owned by German engineering firm Bosch, with the goal of becoming the largest solar manufacturer outside of China, Deutsche Welle reported.
The Bosch Technology Group pulled the plug on the sector in 2012 during wave of bankruptcies and layoffs that triggered an industry-wide crisis. About half of the 20,000 solar jobs in Germany have been lost since 2011.
But SolarWorld Chief Executive Frank Asbeck took the opportunity to announce the restructuring and subsequent expansion plans, despite much skepticism from industry observers.
"It's the last great attempt to save a centerpiece of the German photovoltaic production," Wolfgang Hummel, director of the Center for Solar Market Research in Berlin, told the German broadcaster in November. "This is commendable, but the capacity of SolarWorld is limited."
The takeover of the Erfurt plant would increase SolarWorld's workforce from 800 to 2,600 at a time when some industry analysts are predicting a bounce-back in demand for solar panels this year in non-German markets such as China, Japan and the United States.
"We are cautiously optimistic," Hummel said, while Hubert Aulich, head of the industry group Solar Valley Central Germany, also told Deutsche Welle he was hoping for a recovery in the global market by the end of 2014.
Asbeck has indicated SolarWorld will now concentrate increasingly on exports to international markets and forgo the German market, which after years of quick growth fueled by generous feed-in tariffs paid under the country's Renewable Energy Sources Act is likely to continue to shrink with the policies of the new government.
Executives of other German solar companies this month predicted the "total collapse" of the industry after Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democratic Party and head of a new "super ministry" charged with overseeing the energy sector, announced plans to levy a surcharge on self-consumed PV-generated electricity in an effort to reduce the energy transition surcharges tacked onto consumer power bills.
Under the proposal, the surcharge would equal 70 percent of what PV users would have paid if only using power from the grid and are set to take effect in August, the trade publication PV-Tech reported.
Thomas Rust, chief executive of wholesale distributor AS Solar, said discouraging self-generated electricity use is short-sighted and likely to drive a nail into the coffin of the German PV industry.
"If the plans are waved through without drastic changes, we expect a total collapse of the solar industry in Germany, if the proposals of Gabriel and the current government are implemented," he said, adding that penalizing self-consumption would knock out a "pillar" of the industry.