A recent Fox Nation post claimed that the “ENTIRE Solar Industry” is on the “Brink of Collapse.” But the solar industry is growing faster than any other energy sector, and experts say solar is becoming increasingly cost competitive.
Solar Is Growing Rapidly Even Without Climate Legislation
Solar Industry Is Fastest-Growing Energy Sector In U.S. Earlier this year USA Today reported:
The U.S. solar power market grew a record 67% last year, making it the fastest-growing energy sector, the industry reports Thursday.
Its market share jumped from $3.6 billion in 2009 to $6 billion in 2010, helped by federal tax credits and declining technology costs, according to a report by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and GTM Research.
Enough solar power was installed last year to power about 200,000 homes, the report says, noting that more than 65,000 homes and businesses added solar water or pool heating systems. In particular, the photovoltaics or solar panel part of the market soared most, more than doubling from 2009.
The solar market diversified last year as 16 states installed more than 10 megawatts of photovoltaics (PV) each last year, up from four states that did so in 2007. The top 10 states for PV installation in 2010 were: California; New Jersey; Nevada; Arizona; Colorado; Pennsylvania; New Mexico; Florida; North Carolina; Texas.
The report says the annual cost of these PV systems fell 8% in the residential market and 11% in the commercial one. [USA Today, 3/10/11]
IEA: Solar May Produce Most Of World's Power By 2060. Bloomberg reported:
Solar generators may produce the majority of the world's power within 50 years, slashing the emissions of greenhouse gases that harm the environment, according to a projection by the International Energy Agency.
Photovoltaic and solar-thermal plants may meet most of the world's demand for electricity by 2060 -- and half of all energy needs -- with wind, hydropower and biomass plants supplying much of the remaining generation, Cedric Philibert, senior analyst in the renewable energy division at the Paris-based agency, said in an Aug. 26 phone interview. [Bloomberg, 8/29/11]
Energy Experts: Solar Systems Could “Be The Most Economical Form Of Generating Electricity” In 10 Years. According to solar experts at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, solar could soon achieve “cost parity” with fossil fuels:
Within the next 10 years, solar PV systems have the potential to be the most economical form of generating electricity, even compared to traditional fossil fuels, say solar energy experts from IEEE, the world's largest technical professional association. To achieve this cost parity, the global industry must continue to improve the efficiency of solar PV cell technologies and create economies of scale to further decrease manufacturing costs. IEEE has several initiatives to encourage these advancements.
Solar energy is the earth's most abundant energy resource. The rate of energy from sunlight hitting the earth is of the order of 100 petawatts. Just a fraction is needed to meet the power needs of the entire globe, as it takes approximately 15 terawatts to power the earth (1 petawatt = 1,000 terawatts).
“Solar PV will be a game changer,” said James Prendergast, IEEE Senior Member and IEEE Executive Director. “No other alternative source has the same potential. As the cost of electricity from solar continues to decrease compared to traditional energy sources we will see tremendous market adoption, and I suspect it will be a growth limited only by supply. I fundamentally believe that solar PV will become one of the key elements of the solution to our near- and long-term energy challenges.” [Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, 6/15/11]
Brookings Report: Solar Industry Grew More Than Twice As Fast As The Rest Of The Economy. A Brookings report on the clean economy found that between 2003 to 2010, the solar thermal industry expanded by 18.4 percent annually and solar photovoltaics grew 10.7 percent annually, compared to a 4.2% growth rate in the national economy. From the report:
Which segments grew fastest? Again, the youngest did. The 13 segments in which the bulk of establishments date to later than 1996 grew by 8.3 percent annually from 2003 to 2010--a figure that easily outstripped the 3.2 percent growth of older segments as well as the 4.2 rate for the national economy over the same period.
Along these lines, four of the five fastest-growing segments during this seven-year period were in renewable energy. Solar thermal grew at a torrid pace, expanding by 18.4 percent annually over the seven years and adding 3,700 jobs. The wind power industry added 15,000 jobs, growing 14.9 percent per year. Solar PV added 12,286 jobs with 10.7 percent average annual growth. Moreover, biofuels, another renewable segment, added 9,300 jobs with 8.9 percent growth each year over the period. [Brookings Institution, 7/13/11]
Report: Lack Of Climate Legislation Is Hampering Clean Tech Industries. From a recent report by Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors:
Countries with more 'TLC' - transparency, longevity and certainty - in their climate policy frameworks will attract more investment and will build new, clean industries, technologies and jobs faster than their policy lagging counterparts. This is particularly evident in countries such as Germany and China, who have emerged as global leaders in low carbon technologies and investment in recent years. In stark contrast, a politically divided US Congress and vast budget deficit has resulted in very little significant regulation at the Federal level, with substantial implications for emerging clean technology industries in the US. This climate policy inertia has existed for some time in the US now, with activity on this front largely taking place at the state level. We have long argued that the states must continue to press ahead with climate legislation, but a negative effect of this trend is a patchwork of inconsistent state policies. The net effect is that while Congress stumbles, the US stands to fall behind. [Deutsche Bank, 7/25/11]
Yet Fox Claims The “ENTIRE Solar Industry” Is On The Verge Of Collapse
Fox Nation: “Analysts: ENTIRE Solar Industry On Brink Of Collapse.” Fox Nation highlighted a Heritage blog post titled "'Solyndra Was Just the Beginning': Experts Predict Solar Industry Collapse", which selectively quoted from a CNNMoney report. CNNMoney reported that experts predict more solar companies could go bankrupt as “prices collapse” -- not that the solar industry would collapse. [Fox Nation, 12/1/11]
Solar Experts: Solar Industry Is Not Collapsing -- It's Maturing
Expert Calls Fox's Headline A “Gross Distortion Of The Facts.” Eric Wesoff, a solar industry expert from GreenTech Media, said that Fox's headline was “a gross distortion of the facts” and simply “specious.” Wesoff explained that the solar industry is a "$50 billion industry with thousands of companies" and that the bankruptcies of a few weakly-placed companies “in no way reflects on the industry as a whole.” Actually, Wesoff said, “the fact that the solar industry is going through a turbulent period is actually a testament to its maturity as an industry.” Wesoff noted that most industries go through “demand and supply imbalances” like the one that the CNN.com article described. [Phone conversation, 12/1/11]
Energy Expert: Consolidation Of Solar Industry Is A Sign Of “Maturation, Not Collapse.” Shayle Kann, the managing director of solar research at GTM Research, said: “I would call it maturation, not collapse,” noting that industry consolidation is to be expected. [Phone conversation, 12/1/11]
CNNMoney: Lower Prices For Solar Power “Means More People Are Likely To Go Solar.” The original report that Heritage and Fox Nation selectively quoted from noted that some bankruptcies were not necessarily bad for the industry, and that lower prices would help many companies. From CNNMoney:
Two high profile companies have gone bankrupt in the United States -- government-backed Solyndra and Evergreen -- and analysts anticipate more failures ahead.
“Solyndra was just the beginning,” said Jessie Pichel, head of clean energy research at the investment bank Jefferies & Co. “We're going to see a lot of companies go bankrupt.”
Just how many? Of the few hundred or so solar panel makers worldwide, just 20 to 40 are expected to remain standing in a few years time, said Mark Bachman, a renewables analyst at Avian Securities.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing for solar power. Bachman noted that many young industries go through this phase -- think of all the auto makers at the beginning of the last century or television makers 40 years ago. As the market matures, the stronger companies survive.
Fox And Heritage Criticize “Lavish Incentives” For Solar, Predict More 'Solyndras'
Heritage Criticizes “Lavish Incentives” For Solar. Fox Nation excerpted part of a blog post by Heritage that said “Industry analysts are predicting a massive bout of bankruptcies for hundreds of American solar firms as the market for solar panels, inflated by zealous government backing, begins to cool down.” Heritage added that an oversupply of solar panels “has been exacerbated by a federal government that gives lavish incentives to startups looking to sell solar panels.” Heritage also highlighted the claims that “Solyndra Was Just the Beginning” and predicted that more companies that had received government-backing would go bankrupt. [Heritage Foundation, 11/30/11]
But The Vast Majority Of DOE Loan-Backed Companies Are Safe Bets
Bloomberg Study: 87 Percent Of Loan Guarantees Went To Projects With Low Risk Of Default. A Bloomberg Government study concluded that “87 percent of the $16.1 billion in loan guarantees is backing 18 power generation projects, which have a low risk of default because they were required to have buyers for their power output. Ten manufacturing, fuel production and storage projects, which make up the remaining 13 percent of the portfolio value, were not required by DOE to find buyers in order to receive guarantees.” [Bloomberg Government, 12/1/11]
Expert: These Projects Have Almost No Risk Of Default. Shayle Kann, the managing director of solar research at GTM Research, said that while loans to manufacturing projects like Solyndra's were designed to be somewhat risky, the majority of the loans went to generation projects like those that the Bloomberg study described. Kann said that because these projects already had a buyer, the risk of default is “almost none.” [Phone conversation, 12/1/11]
Bloomberg: Defaults On Loans Have Been “A Fraction Of What The Government Budgeted For.” Bloomberg reported:
The default rate on the U.S. clean- energy loan program that funded Solyndra LLC is a fraction of what the government budgeted for losses.
The BGOV Barometer shows the default rate on the $16.1 billion Energy Department loan portfolio is less than 3.6 percent. The White House planned for defaults of as much as 12.85 percent for loans to solar, wind and bio-energy projects, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
While it's possible that more companies may fail to meet their obligations, “I'm willing to bet more-than-even money that the default rate, when all is said and done, is under 5 percent,” said Greg Kats, who worked at the Energy Department from 1994 to 2000, including five years as the department's director of financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy. “I do not see a scenario in which the default rate gets out of single digits,” Kats said in an interview. [Bloomberg, 11/10/11]
And Experts Say Stable Subsidies Help Emerging Industry
Expert: Subsidies Have Enabled The Solar Industry To Scale Up. Eric Wesoff, an expert in the solar industry from GreenTech Media, noted that the “solar industry is competing with a century old technology and therefore they have required some subsidies to level the playing field.” Wesoff said that these subsidies have enabled the industry to “get onto its feet,” increase volume and reach scale. This has helped lower the prices of solar power - Wesoff said that solar is in “striking range of grid parity - that means that the price of a kilowatt-hour of solar is close to the price of a kilowatt-hour of a fossil fuel source.” Wesoff said that “soon” solar will be able to “compete without subsidies.” [Phone conversation, 12/1/11]
China Has Attracted Far More Clean Energy Investment Than The U.S. According to a Brookings Institution report:
China now leads the world in clean economy deployment. By the end of 2010 its 103 gigawatts of installed renewable energy generation capacity was more than double that of U.S. installations.
What explains China's success in rapid clean economy build out?
A huge part of the answer has to do with China's ability to channel vast sums of affordable capital into innovative large-scale deployment projects--something that the U.S. continues to struggle with. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2010, China put into place a staggering $54.4 billion in clean energy investments. Of this, asset financing--funding for hard assets like wind farms and solar arrays--accounted for more than $47 billion of the total. By contrast, U.S. private investment in clean energy totaled $34 billion, with just $21 billion or so in asset finance. Now the gap is widening further, with Chinese asset finance investment in Q1 2011 clocking in $10.9 billion as compared to just $2 billion in the United States.
What is China's secret in ensuring deployment finance? China has been inordinately successful in mobilizing large volumes of low-cost capital through its state-owned banks and other financial institutions. Clean energy projects have received preferential access to bank loans at interest rates far below what is available in other countries. Moreover, state-owned enterprises, especially the “Big Five” power companies, have been major investors across a broad range of energy conservation, pollution control, and renewable energy projects. For instance, China Guodian Corporation--one of the Big Five--recently announced a plan to invest $3 billion over the next five years in a variety of clean energy projects, including thermal, wind, natural gas, and biomass power stations in southwest China.
But that is only part of the story. Critical to China's success is its articulation of a comprehensive and long-term state clean energy build out policy that sends clear signals to investors. Through its 12th Five Year Plan, China has identified “new energy” as one among seven “strategic emerging industries” and will invest $760 billion over the next 10 years in this sector alone. A range of complementary policies will guide these investment decisions, including the Renewable Energy Law, national demand-side management regulations, and pilot carbon taxes, among others. China has swiftly made itself a clean energy power, in large part by ensuring the availability of copious, affordable capital at a time it has been short in the United States.
The report also included the following chart:
[The Brookings Institution, 2011]
CNNMoney: Analysts Say “A More Stable Subsidy Policy” Would Help The Market. CNNMoney reported that analysts say a “more stable subsidy policy” would help the market. Shayle Kann, the managing director of solar research at GTM Research, said that this is “undeniably true” -- globally, subsidy policies have been “volatile” for solar energy. CNNMoney reported:
What has to happen to turn things around?
Better access to credit, a more stable subsidy policy and fewer solar panels on the market, analysts say. Fewer panels means fewer solar panel makers.
Many analysts say it's the top-tier solar producers that have the technology and name recognition to come out on top. Those include The United States' Sunpower (SPWR) and First Solar (FSLR), as well as China's Yingli (YGE), Trina (TSL) and Jinkosolar (JKS).
Yet other analysts think it's the Chinese firms that sell unbranded solar panels that will prevail. These firms have often benefited from government support that includes massive low-interest loans.
These companies have also been accused of selling solar panels below cost, most recently in a trade dispute filed with the U.S. Commerce Department on behalf of some publicly traded solar panel makers. [CNNMoney, 11/30/11]
Expert: I “Don't Agree” That Subsidies Exacerbated Oversupply In Solar Market. Shayle Kann, the managing director of solar research at GTM Research, said that he didn't “agree” with Heritage that oversupply has been exacerbated by government incentives, saying it was “market forces” that caused the oversupply. [Phone conversation, 12/1/11]