It has been a year of drama for the solar industry. Solar panelmakers and their suppliers and customers had to scrambled to draw upsurvival plans. Now it looks like the worse is over. Or, at leastthat’s what companies are hoping for.
Here are the top stories of the year in the photovoltaic world, not in any order of importance:
1. Tumbling Prices, Hopes: Makers of solar panelsand their suppliers had to slash prices by as much as 50 percent ascredit crunch caused market demand to shrunk quickly. Companies laid off workers, cut production, posted losses and tried to renegotiate contracts with suppliers and customers.
The market slowdown sparked a price war and complaints from German manufacturers that their Chinese rivals were undercutting them by selling their equipment at prices below production costs.
2.Why Become Manufacturers During Tough Times?:Raising money and building factories are supposed to be milestones fora startup company. Recession has forced some companies to reevaluatetheir business plans. Innovalight, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., decidedto license its technology and selling its silicon ink to solar cell maker instead of making its own cells. 1366 Technologies in Lexington, Mass., put its factory plan on hold and opted to sell factory equipment to solar cell makers.
3. Outsourcing, It’s a Good Thing: Owning factoriesmay make less sense as solar panels become commodity goods. Already,some companies, such as BP Solar, SunPower and Evergreen Solar, are hiring contract manufacturers to do some of the production work.
4. Obama’s Stimulating Promise: Solar companieswere psyched when lawmakers approved a stimulus package in Februarycontaining billions of dollars in tax credits, grants and loanguarantees for greentech manufacturers and project developers.
Lots of solar equipment manufacturers have applied, but few havebenefited from the federal government’s largess. Solyndra in Fremont,Calif., is the only solar winner so far in the loan guarantee program,having snagged $535 million to construct a factory. Most of the moneyfrom a cash grant program has gone to wind farm developers.
5. Germany Came To the Rescue: Germany hashistorically been a big solar market thanks to its subsidies for solarelectricity generation. The country remained a bright spot in anotherwise gloomy market. With some manufacturers slashing the prices ofsolar panels by 50 percent from a year ago, project developers andtheir banks realized that they could make a great return on theirinvestments.
Installations in Germany began to pick up quickly in the summer. The amount of new generation capacities added this year has exceeded expectations in many quarters.
6. Create Your Own Demand: First Solar spent $400million to buy unfinished solar farm projects from OptiSolar and setout to complete them in order to create demand for its solar panels.It’s not a novel strategy. SunPower also has been doing so in recentyears.
Other manufacturers that have leaped into the project developingbusiness include Q-Cells, Solon, LDK Solar, Suntech Power and, lately,MEMC. MEMC Electronic Materials, a silicon wafer producer, has bought installer SunEdison for $200 million.
7. BIPV Market Emerges: The market for solarcell-embedded building materials, such as roofing shingles or sides ofa building, barely exists. But it sounds so promising that more solarcompanies are devoting resources into figuring out how to make moneyfrom it.
Dow Chemical’s planto start a limited sale of solar shingles next year shone a spotlighton what could be a large market down the road. Before that, one of thelargest roofing company, Johns Manville in Denver inked a dealto buy flexible solar thin films from United Solar Ovonic and created anew company to market eco-friendly products for the commercial rooftopmarket.
8. The East Is Green: China and India may fighthard to commit to greenhouse reduction goals, but they can spot goodbusiness opportunities in embracing renewable energy. The Chinesegovernment is offering incentives to install solar energy systems across the country, a move to help create demand for its solar energy equipment makers.
India has set an ambitious goal to install 20 gigawattsof solar electricity generation capacity by 2020. The government islooking at spending $19 billion to subsidize manufacturing,construction and research.
Of course, Japan has long been a strong solar market.
9. Utilities Want To Own Solar: A new federal lawin effect this year allows utilities to claim a 30 percent investmenttax credit for owning solar power plants. And sure enough, electricityretailers began to propose their own solar projects.
The Pacific Gas and Electric in California proposed to own 250 megawatts of projects earlier this year, and picked Solonto build what it called a, 2-megawatt pilot project. The SouthernCalifornia Edison and Duke Energy both have proposed rooftop solarprojects as well. Florida Power & Light recently begancommissioning a solar farm with 25 megawatt of generation capacity, making it the largest plant using solar panels (from SunPower).
10. Making Solar More Affordable for Consumers: More cities and counties have embraced the idea of letting their residents pay for install solar energy systems over timethrough their property tax bills. The cost is typically spread over 20years and appears as a separate line time on the bill. The concept isknown as PACE (property assessed clean energy), and was pioneered by Berkeley.
PACE is among a growing number of ways for consumers to use solarelectricity at homes or businesses. Some installers offer leasing orother financing plans, including ones in which homeowners would pay for using solar electricity from the solar panels on their rooftops without owning the systems.