RPS is so 2010.
Facing a Republican House of Representatives and a somewhat divided Senate, greentech companies are shifting their policy strategy in Washington, D.C., according to Arno Harris, CEO of solar developer Recurrent Energy, which got bought by Sharp Solar for $305 million in September 2010.
Instead of seeking an RPS (renewable portfolio standard) or an RES (renewable energy standard) that would require utilities to harvest a certain percentage of power from solar or other renewable sources, some green companies will pursue a CES, or a “clean” energy standard.
What’s the difference? A CES would include provisions for nuclear and clean coal, said Harris in an interview. (Harris is the one on the left in the photo.)
Including clean coal and nuclear into the clean energy mix, however, may not turn out to be a bad thing for the industry. In fact, it could turn out to be a boon.
Folding nuclear and clean coal into the mix could gain enough support in Congress to get a CES passed. Issues like energy independence, national security and the potential to create manufacturing jobs resonate with politicians in both parties, including politicians in red states. Earlier this month, Mississippi and South Carolina both heralded deals for solar factories in their borders.
Second, time favors solar. U.S. utilities have already signed over 5 gigawatts worth of power purchase agreements, according to GTM Research. Nearly a gigawatt got planted in the U.S. last year and the PV manufacturing industry will continue to grow in the 15 percent range over the next few years.
By contrast, a nuclear plant hasn’t been built in over three decades in the U.S. and clean coal remains experimental. Utilities trying to comply with a clean energy standard that mandates that they get 15 or 20 percent of their energy from clean sources will have to skew the balance heavily toward classic renewables.
“In the first ten years [of a CES], there won’t be any nuclear,” argued Harris. “Policy is going to matter an awful lot in 2011.”
The scenario sounds plausible -- we’ve held out hope that the House may use energy policy to show it can be un-obstructionist -- but Washington still appears deeply divided. Loopholes could also gut the impact. Another likely snag: everyone will think you’re talking about the Consumer Electronics Show.
Other notes from Harris:
--Solar prices are dropping again. Solar modules in the spot, or temporary, market, can be scooped up for $1.60 a watt at the moment and for $1.40 a watt or less under volume contracts.
By the end of the year, solar modules in volume contracts will sell for $1.20 to $1.15 a watt, which will in turn reduce the all-in price for solar parks.
“We will [likely] get under 3 bucks a watt,” for large-scale solar, fully installed, by the time the calendar rolls over again, he said.
When the fully installed price drops to $2.50 a watt, solar panels become the hands-down choice among renewable energy technologies. At $2.00 a watt, solar begins to rival conventional fuels, he added.
Note that those are wholesale prices. Manufacturing prices will be lower. Shyam Mehta of GTM Research tells me that Yingli Green Energy and Trina Solar, the two growing Chinese manufactures, will hit $1.05 per watt manufacturing costs by the end of the year.
--Recurrent’s business is booming. It has $1.6 billion worth of projects on the radar and 400 megawatts worth of solar power plant projects under contract. That’s up from the 330 MW that existed when the Sharp deal went though.
“Sharp has been a huge help in credibility,” he said.
--Solar thermal faces a world of hurt. These projects require millions of dollars in capital and tend to get bogged down by permitting and transmission issues.
“Silicon seems to be on such an aggressive curve,” he added.
--Thin film solar panels, concentrators and trackers face similar, if not as extreme, challenges from crystalline silicon. Many of these companies got started in the middle of the decade when silicon sold for $300 or so a kilogram. Now it sells for $45 a kilogram. The assumptions, and the prospects, have since changed.
--Insurance companies will become major investors in solar and will help drive the industry. Insurers want to park money with 20-year to 25-year horizons, which will better match their own premium calendars. Natural gas power plants often operate under power purchase agreements that extend for five to seven years. Not long enough for insurers. Solar contracts last the decades required.
--When it comes to the choice of where to put solar -- rooftops, empty lots or the desert -- Harris remains a huge proponent of empty lots. Recurrent started with the idea of installing large solar arrays on roofs. Many commercial roofs, however, can’t take the additional weight. These solar arrays also tie into the grid at the last link. The grid at that juncture is really designed as a one-way network. Upgrading to get the grid to accept energy isn’t easy.
Property owners and REITs also have a limited interest in leasing out their roof space to solar companies. Solar power generators can’t pay much and various factors have to be considered. Most of the time, property owners go for it just to get the publicity. The deals also take quite a bit of time.
Desert suffers from opposite problems. The land might be cheap, but projects run into permitting and environmental problems. Many desert locales also don’t have transmission connections.
Empty lots generally don’t suffer from the same sort of environmental issues and transmission connections are often easier to obtain. Plus, if one lot doesn’t work, there is often another plot -- an old tire recycling center, farmland that has gone fallow -- down the road.
Thus, Recurrent sounds like it will stick with projects ranging from 2 to 20 megawatts in size. You can fit around 250 kilowatts onto an acre.
--So what does Sharp do for Recurrent? Sharp, a giant company that has been around close to 100 years, has much better access to capital at lower rates than Recurrent could ever dream of. Sharp also provides supply line and solar technology expertise.
Recurrent will likely incorporate Sharp panels into projects, but Recurrent is an independent subsidiary that is not required to buy Sharp panels. It can use panels from other manufacturers.
Harris said this without smirking or coughing. A real pro.
--Even with corporate independence being a watchword in the Sharp-Recurrent deal, expect more tie-ups between solar panel makers and solar developers. Developers simply may not be able to compete on projects, or get access to the volume of projects, on their own.