With 3.9 gigawatts of solar photovoltaics installed in the U.S. through September, pushing the country past 16 gigawatts of cumulative capacity, the industry enters 2015 with a lot of momentum.
Like many solar CEOs, I’m left pondering exactly how next year's growth will play out. So I've come up with five questions that I think address the fortunes of large-scale commercial and industrial (C&I) development in the new year.
Which states will lead the nation?
Currently, 29 states plus Washington, D.C. have a renewable portfolio standard, and twenty-four states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico allow third-party solar power-purchase agreements (PPA). Solar is a real option for C&I customers in roughly half of the country, especially with full-service solar companies that can provide financing, build an array and provide a long-term PPA.
Market leaders like California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey should continue leading the industry, even as incentives such as SRECs decline in value. But the easy projects have already been installed, and new development opportunities are more competitive.
State policy is opening up unconventional markets for solar development, and this trend should continue in 2015. Minnesota, Indiana and Georgia could all produce exponential growth, and we’re especially bullish on North Carolina’s continued prospects for the year.
Regulatory peculiarities make each market challenging in its own way, but the right combination of efficient construction costs and informed capital deployment approaches, alongside appropriate development strategies and interconnection agreements, can create value for developers and customers.
Just how low can costs go?
America’s energy fundamentals of aging infrastructure, difficulty siting new generation, and retiring centralized generation keep pushing average power prices higher -- from 7.61 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2004 to 10.52 cents per kilowatt-hour in September.
Meanwhile, two other factors are pushing solar's competitiveness on the grid in as many as 47 states by 2016. Increased appreciation for solar among investors is making more funds available, while driving down the cost of capital and financing (more on this later), but underpinning all this is the decline in solar panel prices.
International competition, increased supply and other innovations have pushed the average price of C&I roof-mounted solar PV systems down an unbelievable 45 percent since 2012. Accordingly, PPA prices have fallen fast in recent years. I think this trend continues through 2015, with at least a 10 percent decline in the average cost of solar installations and a 5 percent to 10 percent decline in the weighted average cost of capital applied to solar investments.
Will solar’s financing influx continue?
This year saw new levels of financing enter the solar industry, creating a red-hot investment opportunity. By all accounts, that won’t cool down anytime soon.
Mainline energy investors who have underpinned solar’s financing surge will no doubt continue increasing their portfolios. This includes the usual slate of domestic and international project finance banks, as well as funds that have traditionally targeted energy investment opportunities in the U.S.
Corporate players like Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Costco and Ikea keep betting on solar to cut power costs and provide rate stability -- 4.6 gigawatts of solar PV were in operation this year at commercial locations. As solar spreads across corporate America, companies seeking a competitive edge are scrutinizing solar’s potential, and I expect multiple new corporate entities to enter the market, both as owners and investors.
Smaller and regional banks are also contributing to solar’s capital influx. While many of these banks missed the first wave of investment, they’ve gotten smart on solar over the past few years, now understand it’s an asset class that’s here to stay, and will aggressively deploy capital in 2015.
Perhaps the biggest testament to solar’s new legitimacy is interest from conservative sources of capital that watched from the sidelines as the industry matured. These larger funds, pension entities and other groups looking for a lower cost of capital and much safer returns, are now backing YieldCos and other large investment vehicles. I think 2015 will be marked by these funders picking up primary, and increasingly, secondary solar investment opportunities.
But what about the ITC?
The Investment Tax Credit’s pending expiration is the top concern for suppliers, developers and investors. While I believe we’ll see comprehensive energy policy put forth in 2015, we can all agree the ITC is unlikely to be extended in its current form.
Many analysts speculate the ITC will be ratcheted down from 30 percent to perhaps 20 percent before ultimately winding up at 10 percent, as well as extended to cover construction starts before the end of 2016.
ITC uncertainty means 2015 and 2016 will set a blistering pace as developers, investors and suppliers ensure their projects qualify for incentives. This could create a logjam across the industry, and it means potential customers need to get off the fence to lock in their solar projects and PPAs sooner rather than later. After 2016, the entire solar equation could change, and customers who wanted to install systems could find that ship has sailed.
Will utilities integrate solar into their portfolios?
Consolidation has marked America’s energy industry in recent years, and that pace should pick up in 2015. We’re entering a period of consolidation and dynamism in the energy industry (consider NextEra’s purchase of Hawaiian Electric), and that trend will ripple through the solar industry, as well.
America is in the first quarter of a 40-year transformation of our energy economy from one based on fossils to one where solar is a truly significant force. As distributed generation surges, energy clients will continue to source an ever-increasing percentage of their highest-revenue kilowatt-hours from private suppliers. The centralized generation model faces real challenges, with Accenture seeing distributed generation costing U.S. utilities $48 billion per year by 2025.
With that dynamic in mind, many of America’s forward-looking utilities are setting strategic plans to increase renewables exposure and retain revenue. As they shift, more and more opportunities will be available, and investment will flow into all sectors of the solar industry.
Jesse Grossman is the CEO and co-founder of Soltage, a full-service renewable energy company that develops and operates solar energy stations.