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14 Ways that Solar Power Costs will Decrease Sharply

Solar power continues to grow by over 30 percent annually. Solar panels cost 100 times less than in the 1970s. Solar is clean, often generated at or near where electricity is needed, and not at the mercy of fluctuating coal or uranium prices.

The timing for solar energy growth is excellent. Voters have lost their appetite for spending billions to try to make coal clean while carrying the burdens of health damage. Similarly, most voters do not want to pour billions into loan guarantees for expensive nuclear power in the wake of the disaster in Japan.

In this decade, installed solar will drop to half its current cost. Such cost reductions will take more than lower costs of silicon panels and thin-film. Process and policy are now key areas for cost reduction. I recently attended the 3rd Annual Solar Leadership Summit hosted by SolarTech. With progress in these areas, solar costs will drop in half:

  1. Manufacturing scale
  2. Efficiency
  3. Balance of System
  4. Installation
  5. Right Size
  6. Right Place
  7. Improve Interconnect
  8. Markets not Monopolies
  9. Policy
  10. Process
  11. Financing
  12. Concentrate
  13. Hybrid Systems
  14. Storage

Manufacturing scale

Ten solar manufacturers in China produce over one gigawatt of solar panels. High manufacturing volumes, lower labor costs, and favorable government policy have helped lower costs. Morningstar estimates that China has a 20 to 30 percent manufacturing cost advantage and that Trina is producing crystalline silicon cells for 78 cents per watt.

Efficiency

China may be winning the c-Si cost battle, but First Solar uses thin-film innovation to lower cost. First Solar is increasing manufacturing capacity from 1.5 to 2.3GW per year, including manufacturing in low cost countries such as Vietnam. Last year it improved its CdTe module efficiency from 11.1 to 11.6 percent to deliver 75 cents per watt cost. GE announced 12.8 percent efficiency with its CdTe panels. In 2013 it will have a new 400 MW plant online. Honda is betting on CIGS thin film. Venture capitalists are betting on exciting emerging companies as the efficiency and cost battle intensifies.

Balance of System

Dr. Alex Levran, President of the RE Division of Power-One, asked the industry to measure system efficiency in harvesting energy, rather than just evaluate inverters efficiency with specific solar modules. He identified areas for cost savings including eliminating the grounding of inverters. This is not done in Europe and it lowers inverter efficiency. Europe uses 1,500-volt systems. In the U.S., 600 volts is common. Modular inverters are need for quick repair. He feels that a 10-cent/watt goal is feasible in 2 to 3 years with the right component costs.

Installation

Experienced conference participants agreed that a major variability in annual electricity generated from a solar project is how well it is installed. Square feet can be used optimally or poorly. The slope of panels needs to be ideal. The quality of wire and installation affect longevity and output. SolarTech is working with industry groups and community colleges to insure a growing pool of skilled labor.

Right Size

The highest U.S. growth will be in the middle market of 100 kW to 20 MW at locations near load centers. Urban commercial roofs, industrial yards, and parking structures are good examples. The price per watt benefits from economy of scale, flabor costs, shared balance of system. Installed solar is cheaper by the megawatt than kilowatt. These segments appeal to electric utilities that face RPS requirements in 30 states. Commercial distributed solar is often well matched with the location of electricity demand, minimizing transmission and distribution investment. For example, transit operators including LA Metro, New Jersey Transit, and MARTA are among the dozens of agencies heavily investing in solar in the 100kW to MW category. Public Transportation Renewable Energy Report

Right Place

My wife and I recently rode our bicycles to a 5 MW solar installation in the middle of San Francisco. The panels are mounted at ground level on the cement cover of a local water reservoir. Labor and construction costs are lower on the ground than on old roofs that may need to be upgraded to support the weight and maintenance of solar. Near ground, such as erecting steel grids to cover parking structures, can also be more cost effective than roof-mounted systems.

Improve Interconnect

A public utility can make it easy, difficult, or impossible to connect to their system. Follow the money. Some solar makes them money; some costs them. Some projects provide RPS credit; some do not.

Markets not Monopolies

I once shared lunch with a public transit manager who wanted to cover a transit line with megawatts of solar power and a water wholesaler who wanted to buy the power. It was a win-win and the numbers worked, except that they were legally required to put the local public utility in the middle. The utility wanted to build a new natural gas power plant. Somehow, the solar numbers no longer worked. Laws need to be changed, so that micro grids and markets can work without utility monopoly power.

Policy

Installation of solar power is complicated by having 21,500 local codes to deal with beyond the National Electric Code. Permitting can take weeks. Inspection outcomes and reworks are variable costs due to lack of one national code. Promising is DOE’s Solar America Board of Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs).

Process

“The solar industry is at a critical turning point, where the technology is here, yet the overhead process costs keep prices high and force customers to navigate through a complicated process,” said Doug Payne, executive director of SolarTech.  “There is no reason that it should take three months for a customer to adopt solar, when it takes half that time to remodel your kitchen and only a few days to get a new water heater.  The Solar Challenge aims to make solar adoption easier and faster for customers, while simultaneously creating the local jobs and economic growth that follow. “

Financing

Solar financing needs to be as easy as getting a mortgage loan. Instead, many solar projects fail to get financed. Lenders need more certainty in the annual output expected from projects for 20 years. Standard spreadsheets and models would help. More certainty about government policy or an established carbon market would greatly help. Major players that could aggregate many projects would add diversity, certainty and simplify rating and securitizing large portfolios. In Europe, feed-in tarrifs have greatly simplified financing.

Concentrate

Concentrated photovoltaics, in the lab, have demonstrated 41 percent efficiency; roughly double the c-Si being installed. Now what is needed is low cost manufacturing of CPV, 20-plus year reliability, and effectiveness over a range of light-source angles. Also, in the pipeline are gigawatts of concentrating solar-thermal utility scale plants. The big challenge for these plants is years of site approval and high-voltage lines to load centers.

Hybrid Systems

Mark Platshon, Vantage Point Venture Partners is optimistic that installed solar will reach $2 per watt. The magic dollar per watt would require PV to be reduced to 30 cents per watt. Hybrid systems could lower the total cost taking advantage of common infrastructure and interconnect with hybrid systems such as solar and natural gas, roof PV and BIPV, and solar on existing light and power poles. Victor Abate, GE’s VP of Renewable Energy Business, stated the GE has sold 60 megawatts of its thin-film solar to NextEra, an existing GE wind customer. Abate said, “We are an energy company and expect to supply full solutions.” He suggested that if ten percent of GE’s wind farms added hybrid solar, the new 400MW GE factory would be sold out for six years.

Storage

Solar power often delivers when electricity is most needed, such as hot summer days when air conditioning is blasting. Storage of off-peak solar for peak use would add to solar energy’s value. One approach is concentrating solar thermal with molten salt storage. For PV, utilities are piloting a variety of promising grid storage, some as large as 150MW using compressed air, advanced batteries, and even flywheels. In the next decade, major storage could come from electric vehicle to grid.

Cash is King in Renewable Energy Development

It is a buyer’s market for those developing large wind, solar, bioenergy, biofuel, and other renewable energy projects. In 2009, land is less expensive , equipment cost less, deliveries are faster, and warranties longer. It is a buyer’s market if you have cash, yet it continues to be a difficult time to secure debt financing. This message was consistent from the majority attending the FRA Renewable Energy Finance and Investment Summit this week. I chaired the renewable fuels track and had a chance to talk with a number of developers and financers of renewable energy and fuels.

Demand for renewable energy is at a record high as U.S. utilities in about 30 states struggle to meet RPS (renewable Portfolio Standards). These utilities want to sign PPA (Power Purchase Agreements) for 5 to 20 years of wind power, solar, bioenergy, geothermal, and other renewable production. In the future, to meet targets these utilities may need to directly develop, own, and operate these RE plants. Many would need PUC (public utility commission) approval to make this part of their business model.

RE has been a historic opportunity for developers who would take projects through 3 to five years of analysis, regulatory approvals, securing equity and debt financing, buying equipment, program management, and operating the plant. Now, few investors and lenders have the appetite for risk, as projects such as ethanol plants have gone bankrupt.
Credit worthiness of developers, utilities and end users are scrutinized. For example, major public real estate owners of buildings, hotels, and shopping centers that want MW of solar cannot get the RE because their corporation or REIT has a sub-prime debt rating.

Risk is intensified as redundant regulation and NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition can delay installation of high-voltage lines for 7 to 10 years from wind or solar farm to major cities that need more electricity. Even billionaire Boone Pickens was unwilling to tie-up money for that period of time.

New high-voltage lines can be done. Prairie Wind went from zero to a transmitting 345kV line in less than 3 years. It is now optimistic about completing a 110 mile 765kV transmission system in Kansas. Prairie Wind Transmission is a joint venture of Westar Energy and Electric Transmission America — a joint venture of American Electric Power and MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company. ITC Great Plains (ITC) and Prairie Wind Transmission are authorized to build different segments of the Kansas V-Plan.

Although large-scale RE development in 2009 is beyond the financing capabilities of most entrepreneurs, it is an opportunity for major public companies with investment-grade bond ratings such as FPL Energy (FPL), GE Energy (GE), Iberdrola Renovables (IBR.MC), and EDF Energy Nouvelles (EEN.PA). Wall Street analysts are forecasting record 2009 and 2010 earnings for Iberdrola and EDF.

Smaller wind and solar developers find that new developments are possible, though more difficult. Utilities are standardizing RFPs and making conditions more reasonable. Private equity money is available if investors can be convinced of high returns and low risk. David Perlman, Managing Director with investment banker Fieldstone Private Capital Group, reports that, “Liquidity is returning, but with fewer banks than before economic crisis, smaller lending commitments, shorter maturities, and club deals rather than syndications. Bankers might offer construction terms and an operating loan of no more than five years for developments that show little risk.

The ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) has helped and hurt. More federal bureaucracy and slower release of money is reported. New wind and solar deals are more likely to use ITC than PTC. The cash flow for an ITC is sooner and more predictable. For many projects, the new Treasury Department Grant is even more favorable than ITC. Tax-exempt bonds are another avenue for financing RE projects reported John M. May, Managing Director of investment banker Stern Brothers. He identifies bioenergy and biofuel from solid waste are good targets for tax-exempt bonds.

Wind and solar developments are difficult. Biofuel debt financing is next to impossible according to conference participants. Bankrupt corn ethanol plants are being sold for pennies on the dollar, with Valero’s (VLO) purchase of VeraSun assets being a prime example. Clean Fleet Ethanol Report. Cellulosic plants and algal fuel pilots are moving forward for those who have received equity investments in the tens and hundreds of millions, and do not require bank financing, including Abengoa, Enerkem, Mascoma, Poet, Sapphire, and Synthetic Genomics to name a few.

The demand is growing for renewable energy and fuels. The rewards are significant for the patient investor who can moderate risk with a portfolio of RE projects at various stages of approval. In 2009, the year of the Great Recession, cash is king.

John Addison speaks at cleantech and renewable energy conferences. He publishes the Clean Fleet Report. Disclosure: he owns stock in Iberdrola Renovables, EDF Energy Nouvelles and some wind and solar manufacturers.