By Christoph Steitz and Nichola Groom
FRANKFURT/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - German solar energy pioneer Frank Asbeck is betting that the United States can rehabilitate him and his company SolarWorld (SWVKk.DE), which he rescued from the jaws of insolvency two years ago, making himself an industry outcast in the process.
Asbeck, 55, pursued measures both imaginative and ruthless to ensure that his solar panel company did not fall victim to a crisis that claimed many of its German peers.
For years, demand for solar panels and cells thrived in Germany thanks to lavish incentives, until sharp cuts in subsidies and fierce Asian competition put an end to that.
Now, having single-handedly unleashed a trade war, Asbeck is looking across the Atlantic to rebuild a company whose market value peaked at 5.2 billion euros ($5.9 billion) in 2007, and now stands at 169 million.
"This year, we plan to sell more than 60 percent of our panels in the United States," Asbeck told Reuters, compared with 41 percent in 2014.
He said SolarWorld commanded a 10 percent share in what is now the world's third-biggest solar market after China and Japan, a fact that could help it this year to post its first operating profit since 2011.
"This is a company with a great brand and a reputation for quality and is a survivor," said Shawn Kravetz, president of Boston-based investment management firm Esplanade Capital, which has started to buy shares in SolarWorld over the past year.
Even reluctant admirers say only the larger-than-life Asbeck - who is known as the "Sun King" in Germany, and once made a bid for General Motors' struggling European unit Opel - could pull off such a comeback.
A castle owner and passionate boar hunter, Asbeck convinced the state of Qatar in 2013 to take a stake in SolarWorld when it was on the brink of insolvency, while keeping him as CEO.
"You have to admit that Mr Asbeck is one of the most impressive entrepreneurs in Germany," said an executive at a major rival, who declined to be named. "The way he saved the company is unique in German corporate history."
Part of Asbeck's plan was to orchestrate a trade war that not only pitted SolarWorld against rivals in China but also alienated many Western players.
"The Chinese came in and ate their lunch," said Ash Sharma, senior director at research firm IHS. "I think he's trying to do both: save the industry as well as his own company."
By arguing that Chinese panel makers received unfair subsidies, Asbeck succeeded in getting stiff duties imposed on Chinese panel imports in the United States as well as minimum panel prices in Europe.
But many in the industry argue that, by pushing up prices, anti-dumping duties trigger tit-for-tat responses that ultimately endanger jobs all along the value chain.
China has already retaliated by slapping duties on imports of U.S. polysilicon, used in solar cells, causing Hemlock Semiconductor, a joint venture of Dow Corning and Shin-Etsu Handotai, to announce in December that it was shutting a production plant in Tennessee.
"The worst part of this is one German person could manipulate the entire trade apparatus of the United States for his own personal gain," said Jigar Shah, chairman of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, a group of companies opposed to the trade case.
Asbeck still thinks the U.S. market is profitable, however, saying his brand justifies a 10 percent price premium there.
The U.S. could install up to 20 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity over the next two years, about a fifth of the total global market, according to estimates from industry association SEIA and GTM Research, compared with about 7 GW in 2014.
Germany, meanwhile, installed less than 2 GW in 2014, compared to a peak of 7.6 GW in 2012.
"If other countries dump products via state support," Asbeck said, "you have to return to the rules of the game".
"There can't be a monopoly on the sun."
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)