Yes, Solyndra, the first recipient of the U.S. Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, not to mention billions in venture capital funds, has gone bankrupt. The company is being used by Republicans as a prime example of the failure of Obama’s stimulus package, and by Democrats as … well the Democrats haven’t quite figured out what to do with the story yet.
But here’s the thing: Whether or not Solyndra was a good investment, whether you think the government should be making bets on any particular technology or company, whether Solyndra is, as one blogger recently opined, ”collateral damage in a trade war with China,”and whether or not there was some sort of political back-scratching involved, solar remains a good investment. That might sound ridiculous given the fact that Solyndra isn’t the first U.S. solar company to go under this year, by a longshot. But when you look at the reasons behind all those bankruptcies, what you see is not an industry in trouble but a market that is maturing.
Despite the tendency to want to simplify it, the solar industry is complicated. It’s a global energy industry influenced by a host of market forces, including everything from the availability of supplies to technological innovation to policy in vastly different countries. Amongst all that, right now there are five very straightforward reasons the solar market is behaving the way it is; they happen to also be reasons solar is still a good investment, bankruptcies and downgraded earnings notwithstanding.
1. The Price of Polysilicon Has Dropped 89 Percent Since 2008 A few years ago polysilicon was scarce and the price of the stuff was sky-high. That prompted a lot of the excitement around thin-film technologies like Solyndra’s, which had lower materials costs. Then polysilicon started to fall faster than anyone predicted and all of a sudden photovoltaics have the price advantage. The price of polysilicon is continuing to fall, so much so that some solar players are saying PV is already at grid parity. “What’s happening is solar is basically at grid parity, but it’s sort of a staggering thing. We all thought it would happen further off in the future,” says Dan Shugar, CEO of Solaria.
2. European Feed-In Tariffs Are Changing Feed-in tariffs–artificially high rates paid by the government for renewable energy in an effort to speed installations and bring costs down more quickly–made Spain, Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom attractive markets for U.S. solar companies over the past decade. Those tariffs are set to expire as installations increase, but that doesn’t always happen in a predictable way. Spain unintentionally flooded its market, causing a boom and bust cycle. France, Italy and the United Kingdom have slashed feed-in tariffs, catching some solar companies off-guard. Germany has reduced its tariff more gradually, but there are still those who miscalculated it. While all of this has had some companies scrambling for new markets, those (like First Solar) that can claim to manufacture products in the European Union still qualify for high feed-in tariffs. Others saw the writing on the wall and began looking early for new markets, a move that is paying off now.
3. India’s Solar Market Is Heating Up The Indian government has a preference for local manufacturers, but the country’s high temperatures necessitate the use of different materials. Companies able to provide those materials, partner well with local Indian companies or sort out the country’s complicated financing hurdles are finding a booming market there. Colorado-based Abound Solar produces Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) panels that can withstand incredibly hot temperatures; the company has shifted its focus from Europe to India, where that virtue is incredibly desirable. “The only problem in India is that they can’t get enough CdTe panels,” says Julian Hawking, a spokesman for the company.
4. Enterprise and Utility-Scale Solar Suddenly Make Sense With the price of PV panels low and companies competing to keep it that way, utilities are seizing the opportunity to move forward with large-scale projects they’ve mostly just paid lip service to previously. “Just to give you an idea of scale, there’s about .3 gigawatts of PV operating in California right now. There’s 8.6 gigawatts contracted for from PPAs and over 10 gigawatts announced,” Shugar explains. “A lot of those contracts are at what’s called the market price reference – basically the price of new natural gas, determined by the California Energy Commission. Utilities would only sign on to these contracts at those levels. So a lot of folks signed up for these, but at the price that existed when they did so, it was kind of a joke. Well now those projects are actually possible at these new prices, and they can get financed.”
Meanwhile, on the enterprise side, low PV prices are not only encouraging companies to buy their own systems (rather than purchase solar through a Power Purchase Agreement, wherein the system is owned by the provider), but also jump starting projects that had been sidelined. “The low prices mean that our solar initiatives are pencilling out much better now,” says Joseph Roth, Director of Public Affairs for IKEA.
A recent report from ABI Research predicts that the United States will be the largest market for photovoltaics by 2013, thanks mostly to these large installations. Given that the majority of U.S. solar panels are currently shipped overseas, that prediction is a pretty big deal.
In fact, all signs point to a boom in utility-scale solar. Completely separate from the market fluctuations of photovoltaic panels, Abengoa’s Concentrating Solar Plant (CSP) in California’s Mojave Desert quietly received a $1.2 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy this week. It will no doubt be watched closely thanks to the Solyndra debacle, but that probably lends itself more to the project’s success than anything else.
5. Now that Modules Are Cheap, the Industry Is Targeting Other Improvements With PV modules cheap, the solar industry is looking to reduce balance-of-system costs (essentially the cost of everything but the module). A recent Greentech Media report predicted that these costs would outstrip module costs as early as 2012, but the industry appears to be attacking this issue from all sides with companies, National Renewable Energy Lab researchers and nonprofits like the Rocky Mountain Institute all working on the issue. Meanwhile, the dearth of capable installers and consultants that long plagued the industry shows signs of being over. Installer jobs are increasing and customers are starting to notice a greater level of knowledge and skill. “There are more solar providers and installers out there and they’ve been out there for longer, so that makes for a more competitive marketplace and it has also created a deeper expertise among those who are out there,” IKEA’s Roth says. “As solar purchasers, we feel like we have a really good pool to choose from when selecting a provider.”
found at forbes.com
What do you think? Looking forward to read your comments.