Navigant Research Blog

The Future of U.S. Solar Energy Companies – Part 1

— June 30, 2015

Note:  This blog is the first in a four-part series examining the evolution of U.S. solar companies.

There is good reason for the concern that the expiration of the 30% investment tax credit (ITC) will have a major (negative) impact on the U.S. solar PV market in 2017, and there is precedent. The on-again-off-again production tax credit for wind power enabled the U.S. market to surge to as high as 12 GW in a single year and then drop to 1 GW the following. In addition, when key solar incentives in Germany, Spain, and the Czech Republic were removed or limited, similar reductions in deployment ensued.

However, the overall U.S. solar PV market, while expected to take a 60% hit in 2017, is projected to prove to be particularly resilient. New business models, international expansion, and continued cost reductions are expected to enable U.S. companies to compete in a post-30% ITC world.

In this four-part blog series, I will be taking stock of key trends in the U.S. solar PV industry that highlight the continued evolution of American solar PV companies and offer a glimpse of what to expect in the future.  Taken together, the key trends will provide a snapshot of what future U.S. solar and energy service companies are expected to look like. The blog topics will include financing, vertical integration, international expansion, microgrids, energy storage, and community solar. Two of these are covered below.

Financing

Marking one of the most important evolutions of the solar PV industry in the United States, in 2003, SunEdison pioneered a business model where the company would install, finance, own, operate, and maintain solar PV systems. This would enable customers to purchase the power from solar PV systems on their own roofs without putting any money down. SolarCity took this model to scale in the residential market, and now other companies, such as SunRun, Clean Power Finance, Vivint, SunPower, and Sungevity, are offering everything from leases, to power purchase agreements, to loans, in addition to direct sales. These financing schemes set the stage, in part, for the U.S. solar boom that reached 6.2 GW in 2014. This development is also representative of the way in which solar PV companies have adapted their business models to meet the needs of customers and increase investment in the sector as a whole.

Vertical Integration

Intense competition among hardware suppliers in particular has compressed margins and prompted companies to focus on more profitable downstream activities. SunEdison, for example, was one of the first to move toward vertical integration due to its 2009 acquisition by MEMC, a wafer manufacturer with a global presence and a deep balance sheet.

SolarCity has made strategic acquisitions including Silevo (modules) and ZepSolar (racking). SunRun, which started as a finance company, acquired an installer (RECSolar’s residential division), distribution company (AEE Solar), and mounting company (SnapNrack). Successful vertical integration has enabled solar companies to maximize cost reductions throughout the value chain–and also provide the best opportunity for sustained profitability, an elusive goal for solar component manufacturers and installers during a time of growing competition and market expansion.

In my next blog, I’ll take a look at the key trends of emerging markets and microgrids.

 

2014 U.S. Advanced Energy Market Reached Nearly $200 Billion

— June 15, 2015

Along with several colleagues, I recently completed work on the Advanced Energy Economy 2015 Market Report. This is the third year Navigant has produced the report, commissioned by Advanced Energy Economy, a national association of business leaders with the goal of making the global energy system more secure, clean, and affordable. The group has grown rapidly under the leadership of Graham Richard, and effectively takes an inclusive approach to clean energy, transportation, buildings, and other key segments of the U.S. and global energy marketplace.

The annual report tallies revenue from electric vehicles, nuclear, biofuels, solar, and natural gas plants, along with demand response, smart parking systems, transmission, energy efficient lighting, and many others sectors. Today, the report encompasses a large portion of the Navigant Research library of data–spanning more than 60 market research reports and touching more than 80 different industries.

In 2014, the report concludes, the deployment of advanced energy technologies and services in the United States represented nearly a $200 billion market, and $1.3 trillion globally. That makes the global advanced energy market as big as the apparel and fashion industry worldwide, and almost 4 times the size of the semiconductor industry. In the United States, the market for advanced energy is bigger than the airline industry, equal to pharmaceuticals, and nearly as big as consumer electronics. U.S. advanced energy revenue grew 14% from 2013 to 2014–5 times faster than the U.S. economy overall.

Other findings worth highlighting include:

  • Building efficiency became the largest advanced energy sector, at $60 billion in 2014, led by residential energy efficient lighting ($9.7 billion).
  • The shale gas revolution in the United States has translated into an increase in sales of new generating equipment, with revenue from natural gas turbines up 48% year-over-year, to $6.4 billion.
  • Electric vehicle charging infrastructure continues to show strong growth, up 31% to 2014 revenue of $201.5 million. EV charging station revenue has risen 7-fold over the past 4 years.

The Growing Reach of the Energy Cloud

A number of the key trends covered in this report demonstrate the growing reach of the energy cloud. As detailed in Navigant Research’s recent white paper, The Energy Cloud, this term refers to the spread of intelligent networks of energy assets that are increasingly located onsite, commonly referred to as distributed energy resources (DER). These networks often come under fire from incumbent generators and grid operators for eating into utility revenue. Consumers, on the other hand, are benefiting from lower energy prices and a more reliable grid, thanks to the rapid proliferation of the cloud.

On the political side, the rapid growth of the advanced energy sector may offer policymakers a framework (backed up by plenty of data) that makes clean energy palatable to the diverse stakeholders looking for ways to comply with, and even profit from, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.  It’s hard to argue against a $1.3 trillion market.

 

Signposts Along California’s Distributed Generation Corridor

— March 24, 2015

Driving south on the Interstate 5 corridor from the Oregon border to the San Francisco Bay Area, you can see numerous renewable energy projects off I-5. These projects stand as modern signposts to the maturity of—and transition in—the U.S. clean tech industry. Five years ago, renewable installations were mostly limited to remote, utility-scale wind farms in Tehachapi and along the Altamont Pass. While utility-scale installations continue to grow, there is now also a strong focus on distributed generation: solar, wind, fuel cells, and generator sets located directly onsite or on the distribution grid.

The United States is expected to be a leading market for distributed generation, with more than 250 GW installed cumulatively between 2015 and 2023, according to Navigant Research’s report Global Distributed Energy Deployment Forecast. The sites discussed below are some of the most visible installations along the drive down to the Bay Area. They represent the focus on distributed generation today and in the years to come.

Signposts

As you drive through the city of Red Bluff, you see a 1-MW General Electric (GE) wind turbine installed at the Wal-mart distribution center. Wal-mart is the leading consumer of solar PV among U.S. retailers, with 105 MW of installed capacity, twice as much as the second-leading company, Kohl’s, with 51 MW. Big box retailers have installed more renewable energy than tech companies have and are a coveted prize for installers looking for big customers.

If you take the shortcut from I-5 to 505 South, toward San Francisco, it connects to 80 West in Fairfield/Vacaville, where a 1.1 MW solar PV installation at the North Bay Regional Water Treatment Plant is installed. With large energy consumption, water treatment facilities are costly for cities to operate, leading to attractive payback rates.

Renewa-Beer

When you drive further, the Budweiser plant catches your eye right off the freeway, with 3 MW of wind power located onsite. The plant also uses solar and bio-energy recovery systems. These systems combined produce approximately 30% of the plant’s power onsite. Belgium’s InBev may have offended the cultural sensibilities of some Americans when it acquired Anheuser Busch in 2008, but it used American turbines–GE 1.6-MW units.

One of the other noticeable aspects of the drive through California, particularly in Davis and Sacramento, is tract housing developments, where residential solar PV is increasingly prevalent. The residential solar PV market in California has nearly doubled in each of the last 3 years thanks to growth in the solar lease model.

California is expected to continue to lead the way in distributed generation, with systems increasingly utilizing energy storage. Though these storage systems won’t all be visible along the road, they will help more renewables capacity to come online, making the drive more scenic each year.

 

Investors Driving Energy Access Markets

— March 24, 2015

One of the signs of an industry that’s coming of age is when there are enough investors actually attending a conference that you can put investors in the title. Such was the case for the second annual Energy Access Investor Conference in London. Jim Rogers, former Duke Energy CEO, was the keynote speaker this year, adding some utility industry credit to the event.

When I talk to people about the opportunity for solar lanterns and solar home systems (1 W-200 W) for people making less than $2 a day, I usually receive a combination of blank stares and befuddled looks. But 2014 was a breakout year, and this innovative industry is expected to continue expanding in 2015. According to Navigant Research’s report, Solar Photovoltaic Consumer Products, annual revenues for pico solar and solar home systems are expected to grow from $430 million in 2014 to $1.3 billion in 2024.

2014 Highlights

A couple of highlights from 2014:

  • Public and private investment in off-grid lighting surpassed $80 million.
  • Big names entered the market, including SolarCity, Vulcan, Omidyar Network, Schneider, and DFJ.
  • Platform companies emerged, including d.light, Barefoot Power, Greenlight Planet, and others.
  • Markets such as Bangladesh continued to grow even as incentives continued to wind down.

The Year Ahead

Looking ahead in 2015, I expect to see four major trends. First, consolidation will become more common as the larger players continue to gain market share. Second, existing companies will need to expand into new markets, particularly as Kenya, India, and Bangladesh become increasingly saturated. Third, mobile payment and monitoring systems, such as M-KOPA, will gain traction and increasingly become standard in products. Fourth, direct current consumer products, such as fans, radios, refrigerators, TVs, and other appliances specifically designed for less than 200W solar home systems, will grow in popularity.

With any luck, the fifth major trend will be less befuddled looks on people’s faces when I discuss the innovation and economic opportunity in some of the world’s most remote markets.

 

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