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Suntech Power Overshadowed

In the fourth quarter, solar impresario Suntech Power (NYSE: STP  ) shipped out 110 megawatts' worth of modules and cells, contributing to 3% sequential net revenue growth. Usually, we talk about year-over-year growth here in Fooldom, but hey, this is the solar industry. Things move fast.

Except for Suntech's inventory, that is. Heavy discounting of some slow-moving products put a drag on what would have been a flat average sales price. Still speaking sequentially here, non-GAAP gross margin -- which ignores the impact of stock options -- deteriorated by about one percentage point in the core wafer-to-module business, which comprised 92% of sales in the quarter. Aside from product discounting, higher wafer costs also crimped margins somewhat.

Of course, no one was really tuning in to Wednesday's conference call for these small details. We wanted to hear that Suntech was once again raising its production guidance for the year ahead. Unfortunately, that just wasn't in the cards, and shares fell like a house of 'em. Suntech is now sitting far more than 50% off its recent all-time high.

The solar sultan held its production guidance to 530 megawatts for 2008, with a 40/60 split between the first and second half of the year. This strategic delay will take advantage of what management foresees as an easing in spot polysilicon prices. This could prove to be a brilliant move -- just look at what a little "strategic waiting" did for shipper Frontline's (NYSE: FRO  ) triumphant quarter.

Suntech has evaluated test-run material from local manufacturers and generally deemed it acceptable. Now it just needs to switch to large-scale production without a hitch. This is largely out of Suntech's hands, and it's a risk they take by embracing a strategy of "virtual integration." If you want to try and sidestep such symbiosis, you could always opt for a more integrated producer like Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL  ) or Yingli Green Energy (NYSE: YGE  ) . Alternately, you can eschew silicon entirely by flying first class with First Solar (NYSE: FSLR  ) , or taking a more experimental flight with thin-film upstart Ascent Solar (Nasdaq: ASTI  ) .

Whichever solar player catches your fancy, make sure to do plenty of research. Clearly, even the best of these stocks can burn you.

Further sun-drenched Foolishness:

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