Evergreen and Solyndra have filed for chapter 11. These once promising manufacturers of solar panels based in Mass. and CA, USA, could not lower prices fast enough or gain enough market share or distribution partners to stem the increasing onslaught from Chinese manufacturers who are building US based factories and undercutting prices across the board.
While bankruptcy is always sad; there are still 100’s of US based companies surviving and thriving in the overly competitive world of solar. This is also an incredibly exciting time to be in the solar industry. I can remember dreaming of a time when residential solar would be under $6 a watt installed. Well that day has come. I can also remember being disappointed when a utility industry leader told me that they would pursue solar when the install price was under $4 a watt. At that time I thought it was years away; well, that day has come too!
Solar in the US is actually an export business; $1.9B in 2011. The combined exports to China are in the $250 million dollar range. Most of this is in high-tech electrical components and industrial process machinery; areas of the market other than panels. (SEIA industry report 2011)
The political and economic uncertainty in the past 6 months has made this a very challenging time for most businesses but especially small solar companies in SC who have a product that is not yet critical to day to day operations. I think that is about to change.
Poly silicon prices have dropped dramatically and continued competition should propel that trend. The US economy is on the road to recovery. For the national market 1.8GWh of solar is expected to come on-line this year.
Several states currently have private leases for solar at the residential and commercial level. This influx of private capital has alleviated the up-front cost of solar and allowed securitization of solar projects. When investors get involved the market matures. $400m from Google to Solar City, $280m invested in Sungevity, Sun Edison offering leases in 6 states. This influx of capital is still generated by tax credits at the state and federal level so we are not at true parity yet.
What we do have is a way for both utilities and private companies to generate returns from solar projects that will enable growth and sustainable levelized costs.
One thing I have heard consistently from people in the energy industry in SC is that they do not want a mandate. We have mandates in 29 states; they specify a certain amount of energy must come from energy efficiency and renewable energy.
One way to ensure a mandate doesn’t materialize at the state level is to pre-emptively institute a PPA structure across the state that pays a small premium for renewable sources of energy. SC has the Progress Energy Sun sense program that is a perfect example of this.
If utilities paid 9c a kWh over a ten year contract then private equity can see returns, business owners can see the cost benefit and solar will grow in SC. 1% energy increases in NC has covered these costs. This creates jobs encourages out of state investment equity and shows a real commitment to community.
We have concrete proof in other states that capital market participation is the key to unlocking true ingenuity and job creation. I believe you institute this program and parity with coal will come years sooner. Ultimately diversifying our energy portfolio even on a small scale is good for all of us.
How do you find an equitable solution to the solar question?
I try to understand the whole energy issue. I have studied the history of the electrification of America, from the Rochdale Principals to the first hydro plant purchased by James Buck Duke and his subsequent decades of philanthropy. I have studied The french physicist A. E. Becquerel who discovered the photovoltaic effect, Thomas Edison’s pursuit of a DC electric grid and his loss of market and eventual dominance of John Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla’s AC grid.
The reason I have done this is because I knew very little about electricity before getting involved in solar except that I like electricity and want to continue to have access to it.
I have been extremely lucky in that I have been invited to see a working hydro, coal and nuclear plant. For someone who grew up loving motors and horsepower this has been fantastic, a lifetime memory. I have seen the immense raw power that drives our way of life and keeps our economy running. The bone tingling hum of 125MW of hydro turbines is more impressive than an F15 fighter jet or a 1000cc motorcycle at 150mph. I like to think I get it, the grid is immense, powerful, complicated and difficult to maintain. All of the people who run and operate electrical distribution or generation should be proud of what they do and are greatly under-appreciated. I recently had a capacitor break on my condensing unit in July during a 99′ day, I sincerely recognize that electricity is the life blood of South Carolina.
I am a solar guy, I always will be. What does that mean? It means that I have looked at all the energy generation methods available to us, including fusion and I have come to the conclusion that only one resource can eventually permanently satisfy our energy needs and that is solar power.
The earth is a closed system, the only thing entering our atmosphere is photons from the sun. We are told the earth is round so we have finite resources other than the sun. That being said I need to emphasize that I said eventually. Solar today cannot directly compete with the energy output of coal or nuclear. Both of these combined currently account for 70% of our total electrical power generation in the US. I believe we currently consume 374 Terawatts or 374 trillion watts annually. This is a lot of power!
Solar today accounts for less than 1% of that power. If we covered every roof in the state with today’s solar we could get 25% of our daytime power from solar. So the technical challenges are huge. I recognize that SC is a nuclear state with heavy investments from the federal government in research and development. Does this make SC mutually exclusive when we talk about starting a solar industry; far from it, I think it means we have a much higher threshold of integration before we have to worry about dispatchability or base load generation issues.
I also recognize we are asking for a new paradigm from our electrical generation and distribution companies. We want cheap, reliable, electricity all the time and we want you to shoulder the burden of research and development of the next generation of electrical production today at no cost to us the rate payers and members.
So how do we come together, the people of South Carolina, those that want solar and the thousands of engineers and other hard working professionals who provide today’s electrical needs? Luckily I think it is possible, with careful steps, open dialogue and economic development we can achieve a new set of rules for this changing electrical industry.
Solar in North Carolina has been regulated and mandated. What has this achieved? 1350 solar jobs created during the recession, $300m dollars of economic activity and less than 1% increase in rates for North Carolina. This seems to be a positive step towards economic development, grid security and job creation.
It all has happened with no meaningful impact to the overall health and well-being of NC power generation and distribution companies. So if we promise to take into account the history, economics and politics of our energy landscape I am sure we can find willing partners to build a solar industry in the state we all love and live in.
Andrew Streit is the founder of the Solar Business Alliance, a trade association created to foster the growth of solar energy in SC.