China won the last round, but the great thing about fast-changing technologies like solar energy is that a new round is already just around the corner, fueled by growth.
The National Solar Jobs Census estimates there were over 100,000 people employed in solar energy this August, about half in blue-collar installation jobs, and predicts growth of 34% for the sector next year.
While there are new U.S.-based producers coming on-stream in the next round, like Sunpreme and Stion , American emphasis this time will mostly be on getting costs down toward “grid parity” and financing new business models.
Public markets will be looking to see which companies among a pack that includes Chinese silicon cell producers such as Hanwha Solar (HSOL), Canadian Solar (CSIQ) and SunPower (SPWRA), or Japanese companies like Sharp, make a breakthrough in the U.S. markets with new designs emphasizing “micro-inverters,” which turn DC power into AC power at the level of the solar panel.
The big name in this business is an American company, Enphase Energy, which has filed papers for a $100 million IPO to fuel expansion, mostly based on a standard called Zep Solar from a company that closed its first round of funding last year.
It's true that 2011 has been very unkind to solar investors. The Guggenheim Solar (TAN) ETF has lost half of its value this year amid brutal price competition, as has the Market Vectors Solar Energy ETF (KWT).
But that's a good thing. Technology follows a natural boom-bust-boom cycle. Lessons are learned, costs are cut, start-ups emerge, all aimed at turning today's fire sale prices into a cost ceiling for the next round of production. Without such a cycle progress stalls.
Growth, meanwhile, continues.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.