Since the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down cities and states, the U.S. solar industry has had to cope with a new normal.
Though it’s only been a few (very, very long) months, solar developers, financiers and installers have pivoted to new ways of selling and funding projects. With an end to the pandemic nowhere in sight, those changes look to be enduring. Some have even benefited the industry.
Other conditions are more likely temporary, as the industry copes with constrained finances and a recession. Here's what's changed so far.
1. Free products
Along with an economy in shambles has come belt-tightening on the part of would-be solar customers. That’s prompted a handful of residential dealers and installers to offer solar contracts at rock-bottom prices. Several companies have offered months of new solar contracts at the low, low price of next to nothing — or even for free.
The trend has been most pronounced in the residential solar industry, where SunPower, Sunrun and Vivint Solar all offered six-month promotions on their usual lease contracts. While Sunrun signed customer leases at $1 per month (a promotion that ended in August), SunPower and Vivint have gone further, with the first six months of a contract at no cost (both companies are offering customers a rebate).
In August, solar loan provider Mosaic became the latest residential player to jump into the free-solar market. Its new product, PowerSwitch Zero, will give customers even longer to delay payments: 12 months. And Mosaic is keeping the product around permanently, reflecting expectations of lingering economic woes.
NextEra-backed Sustainable Capital Finance crafted an analogous offering for commercial and industrial customers. It has financed nearly 50 projects with its Solar Stimulus power-purchase agreement and plans to keep the product around as long as the pandemic persists.
2. A new focus on online sales
Compared to other consumer products, the solar industry has been resistant to selling online. Complicated contracts and an at-times-confusing value proposition have led installers and dealers to prefer face-to-face conversations. But the coronavirus pandemic made that preference untenable.
SunPower has traditionally conducted about 10 percent of its sales online, CEO Tom Werner told Greentech Media in August. During the pandemic, the company shifted most of its sales online. And while Werner anticipates that equilibrium will shift again once more lockdown orders lift, he expects online sales to account for about half of the company’s business going forward.
Many solar companies are realizing that virtual transactions can help with the persistent challenge of inflated customer-acquisition costs. Tesla already favored the hands-off approach to selling its solar systems. As the pandemic began presenting challenges to the industry, analysts floated the idea that the COVID-19 crisis may push other companies to pursue that approach.
It’s unclear whether that strategy will work for Tesla, however. In the second quarter of 2020, the first that entirely overlapped with the pandemic, Tesla logged its worst quarter for solar installations to date.
3. Residential industry: Harmed but not defeated
Even as sales tanked and layoffs loomed, many residential solar companies insisted their business would prove resilient in the face of an economic downturn. The pandemic and its corresponding recession have given rise to a new pitch to potential investors: not even an economic meltdown can stall solar growth.
In late February, when the coronavirus was already circulating in the U.S. but before lockdowns began, a Credit Suisse analyst asked CEO Lynn Jurich how Sunrun would cope during a “major recession.” Jurich argued that residential solar should prove resilient, providing homeowners a way to save money when times are tight.
It was a bold claim, but the solar industry has indeed proved hardy in the face of other difficult circumstances. In recent years, even as the Trump administration rattled the industry with ping-ponging policy, solar has managed to sustain strong growth. After the federal Investment Tax Credit stepped down in 2016 and annual installations declined in 2017 and 2018, the residential industry hit a record 2.8 gigawatts installed in 2019. Before COVID-19 hit, the residential solar market had been expecting another record year, according to Wood Mackenzie.
The latest figures from those analysts suggest reaching a record in 2020 would now be a surprise. Installations fell by nearly 25% from Q1 to Q2 2020. Lockdowns are impacting companies differently and hurting small solar companies the most, as evidenced by Q2 results reported by the nation’s largest installers. Some saw installation declines that were close to what the industry as a whole experienced, while others logged declines at only half that rate.
Yet despite the lost jobs and flagging sales figures, overall data shows the industry has indeed proved surprisingly resilient: WoodMac analysts are now forecasting flat installations in 2020 and slight growth of 7 percent in 2021.
4. A financing pinch, for some
The rocky economic landscape has the potential to blunt growth for large-scale solar, as well.
Though the utility-scale solar pipeline continues to grow quarter-over-quarter, industry lawyers and developers held their breath as the economy constricted through the spring. A decade ago, the Great Recession suspended the availability of tax equity for many projects. Some expected a coronavirus-related recession to bring similar difficulties.
Keith Martin, a transactional lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright who advises renewables deals, noted that tax equity may arise as a possible industry “chokepoint” in the near term.
The current reality is nuanced. Many tax equity investors, such as big banks, have said they’re planning as many deals this year as in 2019. Some are predicting record amounts of investment, even as the challenges of 2020 mount.
At the same time, developers are describing a split experience in finding financing. Big names such as Invenergy have had no problems. Small and medium-sized companies are struggling.
The sheer volume of projects working through the solar market are making even a possible pinch on tax equity financing feel more acute. But the relative calm for many banks and developers on both sides of deals indicates that large-scale solar has established itself as a stable investment in the years since the Great Recession.
Even so, only certain developers are likely to reap the rewards. Other projects will be pushed into 2021 or possibly 2022, though analysts aren't warning of cancellations just yet.
Project acquisitions reached $4.4 billion in the first half of 2020, compared to $2.7 billion in the same period in 2019 (though the total number of acquisitions was lower in H1 2020 compared to H1 2019), according to an August report from Mercom Capital Group, which monitors clean-energy transactions.