Yesterday we wrote about our most recent foray into the California Solar Initiative (CSI) data and how that data revealed trends regarding the costs of solar in SCE’s service area during the first half of 2011. We continue today with a look into the equipment that was specified for these projects and explore who’s hot and who’s not.
CSI Data Generally and Equipment Specifically
As a reminder, our data set for this analysis consists of an extract from the CSI Working Data from 8-24-2011 that includes data for SCE installs where major status activity took place during the first half of 2011. That data set consists of a total of 6,306 projects of which 698 are “delisted” (meaning the project’s rebate reservation has been cancelled for some reason), 3,131 are “installed” (completed or in some stage of rebate payment) and 2,477 are “pending” (in some stage of the process from initial rebate application filed but no rebate claim yet filed). For today’s analysis, we will exclude the “delisted” projects from our data, leaving a total of 5,608 projects to analyze.
CSI tracks data about equipment used on projects in great detail. In particular, for every project, CSI allows for up to seven different panel manufacturers and ten different inverter manufacturers! So how many of our projects use multiple panels or inverters by different manufacturers? We would expect not many, and the data supports that surmise. Only 11 projects reflect two different solar panel manufacturers on the same project and in most of those cases the installer has substituted one solar panel for the one originally designated. (Indeed, one project reflects four different panels being identified to CSI for the same project, finally settling on what appears to be two 180 Watt panels plus six 175 Watt panels feeding a single string inverter – curious design, that!) Similarly for inverters, only 24 projects have two different inverter manufacturers specified and no project reflects more than two. Given that, our analysis will only look at the first specified panel and inverter manufacturer.
Solar Panel Trends
So what is happening with solar panels?
Overall, there are 85 different panel manufacturers included in the data; however, most of them account for very few projects. If we apply a reasonable filter to this data and only look at solar panels that appear in 50 or more projects, the number of represented manufacturers drops from 85 to 14, and the total number of represented projects falls from 5,608 to 5,079. In other words, those fourteen manufacturers account for 90.6% of all of our projects, as demonstrated in this first graph. In fact, the distribution is even tighter with only five manufacturers exceeding 10% of the total: Suntech Power (18.7%), Sharp (14.8%), SunPower (14.3%), Kyocera (12.8%) and Yingli Green Energy (10.8%).
Solar Inverter Trends
There are twenty-three different inverter manufacturers represented in the CSI data, reflecting the greater complexity of inverters and the more rigorous path required to bring an inverter to market in the U.S. Filtering for manufacturers represented by ten or more systems cuts the list from 23 down to just 13.
SMA America is the runaway winner in this competition. Under their own label, they account for 35.4% of all of these projects. Moreover, the majority, if not all, of the “SunPower” inverters are actually re-branded SMA inverters. When the SunPower inverters are added in, SMA accounts for a whopping 48.2%. That leaves only six other manufacturers to exceed even 1% of the total: Fronius USA (19.8%), Enphase Energy (15.2%), PV Powered (5.5%), Kaco New Energy (3.1%), Power-One (3%) and SatCon Technology (3%).
Two things of interest in those last numbers – the inroads of relative newcomer Enphase Energy (which was only founded in 2006), and the inclusion of SatCon, since alone among that list, it only sells central inverters for the commercial market (where it is dominant).
That is how the different manufacturers stack up head-to-head, but what about combinations? Are there pairings of panels and inverters that are most commonly preferred? The data reveals five combinations that account for more than 5% of the total: Suntech panels with SMA inverters (13.5%); SunPower panels with “SunPower” (i.e., SMA) inverters (12.4%); Sharp panels with Enphase micro-inverters (10.3%); Yingli panels with Fronius inverters (8.2%); and Kyocera panels with Fronius inverters (8.2%).
Winners and Losers
While certain pairings are popular – are they cost-effective and how well do they perform together? We decided to look at system combinations from an average $/Watt perspective and from an average CEC efficiency perspective to see what jumps out of the data.
Here’s the first thing that struck us – picking a system with lower-tier panels does not guarantee a lower installation cost. In fact, many of the bottom-tier panels (none of which made the cut in our discussion of panel manufacturers above) had install costs well above our overall average for the data set ($6.37/Watt). For example, we found a handful of systems using solar panels from such luminaries as Apollo Solar Energy, SET-Solar, and REC ScanModule where the average installation cost was more than $10/Watt!
Who was on the very low end of the install cost curve? Gloria Solar, Suniva, Kaneka, Silray and Solaria each had a handful of installations that were below $4.50/Watt.
More significantly, how did our most popular pairings perform? Here’s the data:
|Cost Effectiveness of Popular Panel/Inverter Pairings|
|Combination||Average Cost $/W|
|Suntech & SMA||$5.01|
|SunPower & SunPower||$8.49|
|Sharp & Enphase||$11.62|
|Yingli & Fronius||$9.58|
|Kyocera & Fronius||$9.79|
What is up with the Sharp & Enphase combination? While Enphase installations are known to cost a bit more than a comparable string inverter installation (confirmed by our own experience), they certainly don’t cost $5/Watt more! Rather, it turns out that the overall average for all Sharp-based systems is $8.53/Watt (nearly $2.00/Watt above the average) with prices ranging from a low of $6.17/Watt (when paired with a Solectria inverter) to a breath-taking high of – are you sitting down? – $19.30/Watt when paired with a Sharp inverter. So who installed that system, you ask? You’ll learn all about it (or at least all that we can tease out of the data) later in this series.
Shifting our attention to efficiency, thin-film module maker First Solar gets the highest overall ranking, 91.7%, thanks to its extremely high STC to PTC ratio. On the more embarrassing end of the scale, Sunlan solar brings up the rear, averaging only 80.7%. From our list of the most popular solar panels, Sanyo (long a Run on Sun favorite) does the best, averaging 89.3% across a variety of inverter combinations. The rest of the top five are: Canadian Solar (87.6%), SunPower (87.5%), Suntech (87.2%), and Schuco (87.0%). The bottom-five of our best selling panels? That dubious honor belongs to: Sharp (86.0%), BP Solar (85.8%), ET Solar Industry (85.6%), Trina Solar (85.5%), and REC Solar (85.1%).
As for our five most popular pairings, here is the data:
|System Efficiency of Popular Panel/Inverter Pairings|
|Combination||Average System Efficiency
|Suntech & SMA||87.2%|
|SunPower & SunPower||87.1%|
|Sharp & Enphase||85.2%|
|Yingli & Fronius||85.6%|
|Kyocera & Fronius||86.0%|
That is a pretty tight grouping, with a total range of just 2%. To break out of that mold with a conventional panel/inverter pairing, the Sanyo & SMA combination is your best bet, weighing in at 89.5%.
Who Uses What?
Finally, we decided to see what equipment combinations are preferred by the biggest installers in the market. The following table lists the top-five installers and reports the number of projects in the data, their most frequently chosen solar panel (and % of times used) and their most frequently chosen inverter (and % of times used).
|Top-5 Installers by # Projects – Preferred Equipment|
|Name||# of Projects||Panel Mfr (%)||Inverter Mfr (%)|
|Solar City||910||Yingli (47.8%)||Fronius (95.5%)|
|Verengo||688||Suntech (91.7%)||SMA (81.7%)|
|Galkos Construction||401||Sharp (98.5%)||Enphase (99.0%)|
|REC Solar||207||Kyocera (42.5%)||SMA (75.4%)|
|Real Goods Solar||165||Kyocera (54.6%)||SMA (65.5%)|
Collectively, these 5 installation companies accounted for 42.8% of the projects in the CSI data. Certainly companies this large must have some real clout when it comes to negotiating prices, thereby allowing them to pass along those savings to their many customers.
Or do they?
Find out in our next installment!