Navigant Research Blog

Could New Trade Deals Create a Cloudy Forecast for the US Solar Market?

— November 1, 2017

After a lengthy investigation, the US International Trade Commission (ITC) unanimously voted in favor of pursuing protectionist policies on imported solar equipment. The panel found that imports of crystalline silicon PV cells and modules have caused serious injury to the US solar industry, rendering some firms incapable of competing in the global market. To insulate US solar companies from the practices of foreign producers, the ITC agreed to grant President Trump the authority to implement trade protection policies.

Renewable Energy Often Needs Government Support

As cost structures do not always reflect the environmental benefits of green technology, the integration of renewable energy (RE) often requires some form of government aid such as tax incentives, customs duties, or import tariffs to support nascent industries. For instance, Germany’s feed-in tariff scheme under the German Renewable Energy Act created financial security for investors, allowing for healthy market competition within the region to thrive.

Subsidies and tax breaks can also assist solar producers and manufacturers in their efforts to vertically integrate themselves along the value chain, especially when market prices become volatile. For example, a company producing solar cells may want to vertically integrate upstream by manufacturing polysilicon, or integrate downstream by installing PV equipment.

Government support can help alleviate cost impediments associated with integration along the value chain. The spillover effects from German policies, along with other market forces, have created an economic environment suitable for solar technology innovation and deployment. This has allowed Europe to represent 80% of global demand for solar panels for much of the 2000s.

A Global Trade

However, the efficacy of protectionism for the US solar market is up for debate, as the preferential treatment of domestic manufacturers may end up doing more harm than good. Comparative advantages and market imbalances within the RE industry have led to an increasingly globalized supply chain and a growing reliance on international trade. In fact, 87% of all US solar installations use foreign-assembled panels, which means that restrictions on solar imports would increase costs for US consumers. This could severely limit the integration of solar energy and US adoption of clean energy practices as a whole.

US Solar Market

The size of the US solar market at stake within the broader RE industry is grounds for concern. A substantial tariff could lead to the loss of 88,000 US solar energy jobs out of an estimated 250,000. US-based manufacturers have even spoken out against the use of trade sanctions due to the detrimental impact it would have on the entire solar industry.

In fact, researchers at the University of Chicago found that the primary driver of solar industry growth in the United States has not been manufacturing, but rather the increase of installations caused by decreasing costs of solar products. This study highlights the fact that solar employment in the United States is not dependent on manufacturing but on several other subsectors within the market such as installation, sales and distribution, and project development. The US decision to invoke protectionist policies may end up protecting cell and module manufacturing at a great expense to these subsectors.

Policy Ripple Effects

The ripple effects from these new tariffs would be far reaching. Many US businesses depend on competitive pricing along the entire value chain, not just in manufacturing. The solar industry represents one of the fastest growing industries in the country. Consequently, the decision to implement such policies could darken what was once a bright future for a critical industry.


UK Offshore Wind Costs Plummet to Record Lows

— October 5, 2017

Offshore wind power costs are plummeting as wind turbines get bigger and European countries implement a variety of market-oriented competitive pricing schemes. The general pattern is to let wind project developers bid and compete for the lowest power purchase agreement (PPA) price at which they are still confidently willing to finance and build a wind project. The latest results of the United Kingdom’s Contracts for Difference (CfD) auction for 15-year contracts are being hailed as a breakthrough on price.

Contracts for Difference Awards

3,196 MW was awarded mid-September, divided to go to three projects. Project and price highlights are as follows:

  • Dong Energy will construct its 1,386 MW Hornsea Project Two with a winning bid at £57.50/MWh ($75.75/MWh). Staged commissioning is planned for years 2022 and 2023.
  • EDP Renovaveis (EDPR) also won its CfD bid at the same £57.50/MWh ($75.75/MWh) price for its 950 MW Moray Offshore Wind Farm East with a similar 2022-2023 completion timeframe.
  • Innogy (formerly RWE Innogy) won its CfD bid at £74.75/MWh ($98.48/MWh) for its 860 MW Triton Knoll offshore project.

Other Offshore Wind Wins

Technically, the lowest prices awarded recently for offshore wind are for the Borssele III and IV wind farms off the Netherlands, amounting to 700 MW at a new record low PPA price of €54.5/MWh ($65.2/MWh). This was awarded in December 2016 to a consortium made up of Shell, Van Oord, Eneco, and Mitsubishi/DGE. The next lowest price seen yet was awarded in September 2016 as part of Denmark’s nearshore tender to Vattenfall for its 350 MW Vesterhav Syd and Vesterhav Nord wind farms at €60/MWh ($71.79/MWh).

However, while both of those projects are nominally the lowest PPA contract price, the Borssele projects in the Netherlands and the Danish nearshore tender do not include the cost of transmission and grid connection. This cost is estimated to add another approximately $15/MWh-$20/MWh, which pushes their real price up to around the price level of the recent UK CfD projects.

Changes in the Past Few Years

These recent prices reflect a rapid drop from offshore PPA prices only a few years ago. Dong’s 1,200 MW Hornsea 1, which will go online in 2020, was guaranteed £140/MWh ($184.2/MWh) in 2014. Three years later, the recently awarded 1,386 MW Hornsea 2 will proceed at less than half the previous Hornsea 1 project’s cost. By comparison, the new low prices are coming in cheaper than the United Kingdom’s nuclear power.

In addition, in the previous CfD auction in 2015, two offshore wind farm projects won subsidies between £114/MWh and £120/MWh ($150/MWh and $157.8/MWh)—Neart na Gaoithe and East Anglia 1, respectively.

Other Auctions and Numbers

Recent April 2017 offshore wind auctions in Germany should also be mentioned. Dong and EnBW won power contracts for offshore wind plants totaling 1,490 MW with zero subsidies.

Large projects and ever growing turbine sizes are major reasons for the price drop. The latest generation Vestas 9.5 MW turbine can provide enough power for over 8,000 average UK homes. Siemens likewise has rapidly uprated its offshore platform to 8 MW, and the company is hinting at a 10 MW plus turbine for coming years. Dong and EDPR did not disclose the turbine nameplate rating expected for their latest wind projects, but size is likely to be between 10 MW and 15 MW per turbine. Larger turbine units generate more power and reduce the total number of offshore foundations needed for a given project size, thereby reducing construction, foundations, and inter-array cable cost.


Can Solar Make an Impact on the Transportation Market? Part 2

— September 5, 2017

After a few conversations with Scott Shepard about PV systems in EVs, I began to come around to his view that solar is too expensive and the roof space too limited to make a solar-equipped EV work at the mass market scale. But then I read about another PV in transport project that made economic sense: Indian Railways’ newly launched solar diesel multiple unit (DEMU) trains. A total of 16 300W solar modules are installed on each coach on the train for ₹9 lakh ($13,950 or $2.9/W). The Indian Institute of Science estimates that the annual energy yield in a solar rail coach will be between 6,820 kWh and 7,452 kWh. This could displace 1,862 liters of diesel, saving around $1,650 per year at $0.88/liter diesel.

Lessons Learned

I see two key elements that make the project work. The first lesson from India is that solar in transport makes more sense when it is displacing liquid fuels rather than electrons. Going back to the Prius example from the first blog in this series, if the solar roof was available in Toyota’s non-plug-in version of the car, its economic effect would be significantly better. If a non-plug-in version of the Prius could run for 2,190 km per year on only solar, it could save about 150 liters per year, which would have a value of around $180 per year (using Japan’s gasoline price in July 2017). The investment in a solar roof could break even within the lifetime of the car, so the current cost of the add-on could be justified.

The second lesson is the use of off-the-shelf modules. In this way, the project benefits from the economies of scale that PV systems are famous for. It would be difficult to use off-the-shelf modules in cars, but if Toyota introduced the solar roof in all its Prius cars (for example), it could increase the production rate of solar roofs for the Prius from a couple of thousand per year to about 350,000 per year (global Prius sales in 2016). Modules with similar high efficiency cells in the wholesale market sell for about $0.50/W (i.e., $90 for the 180W used in the Prius).

Most of the costs arise from integrating the PV cells into the roof of the car. These costs could decline significantly due to economies of scale as well. If Toyota could cut costs to those of the train company ($540 for 180W already installed in the car, including inverters and other costs), the breakeven period would be about 2.5 years. Slashing costs would make a solar roof a no-brainer (especially for consumers like me who would be able to drive the car without ever using a charging point or stopping at a gas station).

Interesting Niche

This would open an interesting niche for solar companies. If all the EV and hybrid EV cars sold globally in 2017 (expected to be between 3 million and 4 million) had a 180W roof, an additional 840 MW (an extra 1%) could be added to global solar PV demand. But solar roofs need a champion to push them into the mass market in the same way Tesla pushed EVs away from the margins. My last blog discussed two startups that are exploring this niche. However, traditional manufacturers could do the same to differentiate their brand and cars from the competition. Toyota is an obvious choice given its brand association with hybrid cars, but other manufacturers could step in. For example, Volvo could be a great candidate since it is hybridizing all its models.


Can Solar Make an Impact on the Transportation Market? Part 1

— August 31, 2017

People have dreamed of solar-powered vehicles for decades. The first World Solar Challenge race occurred in 1987 and the first American Solar Challenge (then called Sunrayce) was held in 1990.

Thanks to improvements in solar costs and the EV value chain, the dream is closer to reality. Two startups (Sono Motors in Munich, Germany and Lightyear in Eindhoven, the Netherlands) have projects underway. Sono Motors successfully crowdfunded more than half a million dollars in September 2016 and revealed its first car on July 27, 2017: the Sion. According to Sono, the Sion will cost between $13,200 and $17,600 depending on the battery size and will run without refueling for around 30 km with a 1 kW solar system. It will be available in 2019.

Lightyear is an unofficial spinoff from Solar Team Eindhoven. This team built the Stella and Stella Lux solar racers—both winners of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge Cruiser Class. The cruiser class replicates traditional cars, with seating space for four people. Lightyear has been taking preorders since June 29, 2017 for €119,000 ($138,000). The car is expected to offer a range between 400 km and 800 km and travel between 10,000 km and 20,000 km per year in low irradiation areas (e.g., United Kingdom and the Netherlands)—charging only with its PV system.

Today’s Solar-Powered Vehicle Option

A solar-powered vehicle option is available on the market today. Toyota’s latest Prius Prime Plug-in Hybrid offers an option in Japan to add a 180W solar roof that charges the main battery. Toyota claims that the roof will give the car a maximum solar rage of 6 km in Japan, which is a country with medium irradiance levels. The option to add the solar roof costs $2,500, which adds 5%-10% to the vehicle price. This seems expensive given the savings it provides compared to buying electricity from the grid that costs below $70 per year, even with the high electricity prices in Japan. From a convenience point of view, the system might make more sense for people without parking at home and short daily drives. My daily commute is around 4 km, which means that if I had the Prius Prime Plug-in Hybrid with the 180W solar roof add-on, I could drive mostly electric all year without visiting a charging point. It is still an expensive feature, however, which is why most mobility analysts—like my colleague Scott Shepard, who analyzes the EV market—have been skeptical about the idea of putting solar and EVs together. Yet, other automakers are exploring the PV-EV connection, as well. Audi has just announced it will unveil a prototype EV with solar panels on the roof to extend the vehicle range.

Despite the skepticism, one successful solar-powered vehicle project exists. Part 2 of this blog series will look into Indian Railways’ newly launched solar diesel multiple unit trains.


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