Where is the Solar Industry Headed?

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Includes: ESLRQ, PBW, PUW, SPWR, STP
by: Neal Dikeman

I had a chance to talk with David Hochschild, the outgoing Executive Director of PV Now, about his thoughts on the solar industry and recent changes. PVNow is an industry association that, among other things, helped lobby for the net metering and the solar initiative in California and increased RPS standards in Texas and New Jersey. David is a well-known advocate and speaker on solar issues.

David, can you give us a bit of background as to PV Now, and your role in the industry?

Sure. I co-founded Vote Solar in 2002 after working on the $100 M solar bond campaign in San Francisco. For the last year, I have been Executive Director of PV Now, the consortium of major solar companies, working to promote pro-solar policy at the state level.

While PV is the only viable solution for small point of use electric generation, solar thermal is generally considered a hugely more economic solar solution at multi-megawatts scale than PV, but PV gets all the press in its drive to compete with the grid at large scale. Why is that? Understanding that your focus is PV, how would you like to see solar thermal fit in the solution set?

Am a huge fan of solar thermal and am getting a thermal system installed on my house this weekend, actually. I think PV gets more attention in California partly because we experienced an energy crisis that was really an electricity crisis and the blackouts were an electricity problem. But the contribution solar thermal can make is very real and very important and I think the passage of the ITC bill this year, if it happens, will do a great deal for solar thermal. States like Hawaii and countries like Israel already have a 30% market penetration for solar thermal and there’s no reason CA couldn’t as well. A little known fact – the country with the most solar thermal in the world is China. My personal view is that US should be leading in both PV and solar thermal and that if we can get the 8 year solar tax credit bill passed this year (HR 550), we will be in position to retake the lead.

It feels like there has been a changing of the guard in terms of the leaders in PV module production. What’s your take? Who would you rank as the up and comers?

I think China is emerging and we’ll see companies like Suntech (NYSE:STP) really continue to grow rapidly. Older industry leaders, like BP, that used to dominate, are now sliding down the rankings of PV manufacturers. It’s also a good time for American solar manufacturers like SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR) and Evergreen (ESLR), which are growing fast and are aided by the emergence of more state-based US PV markets like PA, TX, NJ, and AZ, in addition to CA.

And similarly on the integrator and installer side – what does the future hold? How do these companies best survive in a much more competitive environment?

I think there will be a major changing of the guard here too and things will get more sophisticated, which is long overdue. The installation cost of PV in Germany is about 30% less than the US so there is a lot of cost cutting to be found in installation. The savings are not just going to come from better manufacturing. Things like mountings systems, electronic shade analysis, snap-connects, better installation methods, customer energy calculators, reducing the # of site visits, all these factors bring down costs.

PV concentrators – I have long felt that concentrators are in a catch-22: if PV module costs don’t fall rapidly (as the industry works hard to drive them down), then the solar industry will struggle anyway, but if PV costs do fall as rapidly as expected – then why would the industry need concentrator technology whose primary advantage is reducing the amount of PV module? What’s your take?

If you are referring to technologies like Solaria’s – that take a concentrating lens and amplify the amount of light on a PV panel – that will move forward and be important no matter what happens to the cost of PV because the lens will always be cheaper than silicon and the benefit you get from them is profound. I am optimistic about this sector in particular because, if they get it right, it could bring PV costs for conventional silicon technology down by 30% or more, fairly quickly. But there are still obstacles to be worked out such as heat gain and how you deal with that, which is a major issue in PV performance.

And where the rubber meets the road, do you have a PV system on your roof? If so, who did you buy it from, whose technology did you pick and why? If not, whose technology would you use?

I live in San Francisco by Dolores park, and my wife and I have a 2kW system on our house that we installed in 2000. BP panels. If I were doing it today, I would opt for a higher efficiency panel such as SunPower.

After thinking about it a bit, I'd asked David to clarify a couple of his comments.

Can you elaborate a little on large solar thermal - like parabolic trough projects. I see little reason to do a large grid connected 5-10+ MW PV system, instead of a solar trough system. What are your thoughts on the competitive situation between PV and solar thermal trough power as PV tries to get to "grid scale"?

You’re absolutely right about CSP. I just visited the new CSP plant outside Las Vegas – 64 MW. And it is a superior technology for central station solar generation. No question. And that will only get better as newer synthetic oils come on to the market that can be heated to hotter temperatures than are currently possible (750 degrees is about the limit and that is a major constraint on how much power CSP can produce but this is likely to change soon). The federal ITC was the only reason that Nevada CSP plant got built so we can expect a lot more if the ITC gets extended.

I think the role that PV is best suited for is rooftop applications and there is so much available roofspace in this country, it’s ridiculous. So large scale PV is great, but in my view, it is best for rooftops rather than deserts.

Also, as to our discussion on changing of the guard, BP Solar among others has announced some major expansions.

Does this indicate that the "old guard" is likely to retake market share? It has been suggested to me that the some of the market share changes were related to silicon supply constraints that are now easing.

Regarding BP, yes they are making capacity expansions, but so is everyone. Nobody in this sector is NOT growing. The question is how fast they are growing. And I do think we are witnessing a major shakeup and many of the companies that were top market leaders over the last 5 years will not be over the next 5 years.

Myself, I tend to agree with David on this. While it is hard to pin down winners and losers, rapidly growing markets and changing competitive dynamics and cost curves do not make for stable market shares. It will be interesting to watch.

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