Wal-Mart Could Give Solar Energy Tremendous Boost

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 |  Includes: SPWR, WMT
by: David Fessler

Flying home from our conference in Victoria, and looking out the window of the airplane taking me home, I begin to understand the vast opportunity we have by looking over the rooftops of homes and business parks alike.

The thought that jumps to mind is that solar power isn’t going to be “alternative energy” for much longer.

In spite of the current economic malaise and market downturn we’re navigating through, solar energy is one of the few bright spots (pun intended) in the alternative energy space.

The reason?

  • Continued advances in solar panel technology are resulting in cheaper, more efficient panels.
  • Government subsidies at both the state and federal levels are making the installation of residential solar more compelling than ever.

Here’s why solar is looking brighter by the day, and a major retailer that could change everything.

The Solar Energy Industry’s Solar Cell Production

For the past few years, the solar power industry has been capacity constrained by the lack of polysilicon, the basic foundation on which chemicals are deposited to produce the solar cells used in panels.

But as in other areas of the semiconductor industry, technology marches on. The newest panels are based on thin-film technology, and don’t require polysilicon. No fewer than 143 companies are involved in some aspect of thin-film panel technology.

Thin-film is fast becoming the new standard in panel technology, and in a few years will render polysilicon panels obsolete. Right now, thin-film panels are averaging about $1.40 per watt, but that number will be halved in a year or two.

That alone will make thin-film panels competitive with their polysilicon predecessors, but panel efficiencies - currently around 9% - are rising, and will likely reach 18-20% in the next few years.

Combined, decreasing costs and increasing efficiencies will soon make solar panels the cheapest power source on the planet.

Like everything else, economics will ultimately drive the solar panel industry, just like it has in the computer industry. And one of the greatest modern companies to exploit economics of scale is getting into the act.

Wal-Mart’s Solar Energy Experiment

Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE: WMT) is already evaluating the feasibility of installing solar energy panels on the roofs of its stores. Consider it “dipping a toe” in the water to check its temperature.

  • If an experiment involving a few stores pans out, Wal-Mart could decide to roll out panels to all of its stores. That’s about 35 square miles of surface area.
  • Using a very conservative figure of around 3 watts per square foot, Walmart could realistically expect to produce in the neighborhood of 3 Gigawatts of power.
  • That would make the low-cost retailer one of the largest power producers in the country.

Now replicate that scenario on every warehouse, and big box store in the country, and you begin to get the idea that solar energy could reasonably provide a significant percentage of the power we use, especially during peak usage times.

Storage when the sun isn’t shining is certainly an issue, but scientists and engineers are already designing load-shifting storage systems that will provide power during times of darkness or on cloudy days.

The entire sector recently got a boost when SunPower Corporation (Nasdaq: SPWRA) announced earnings and blew away analysts' estimates.

If Wal-Mart does forcefully enter the solar space, we’re going to see it use its tremendous pricing power to lower the cost of solar energy and gain mass production. The kinds of things only a company of that size and negotiating power can do.

And when that happens, consumers everywhere will be jumping aboard.

Investors who want exposure to the sector should view market pullbacks as opportunities to establish small positions in their favorite solar stocks.

Disclosure: None