As Solar Panel Prices Plunge, U.S. Developers Look to Diversify

With the economics of solar power changing, firms say they can now afford to diversify their technology mix and thus enter untapped American markets

Rice Solar Energy Project
Rice Solar Energy Project near Blythe, Calif., courtesy of SolarReserve

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The falling cost of solar panel production in the United States is giving solar innovators financial leeway to add technologies and expand into new markets, industry leaders say, enabling them to meet growing demand.

“As the U.S. solar market continues to mature and grow, it is vital for every company to find a competitive edge … and diversification is increasingly part of the business model,” Rhone Resch, president and CEO of Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), told reporters this week on a conference call.

For SolarReserve, adding solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity to its existing portfolio of utility-scale concentrating solar power (CSP) has allowed the firm to expand beyond the U.S. Southwest, where the bulk of its activity has been thus far.

The Santa Monica, Calif.-based developer teamed up with San Francisco’s GCL Solar Energy last fall in a 50-50 joint venture to develop, build and operate up to 400 megawatts in PV facilities across the country.

“Several years ago, SolarReserve realized that numerous types of technologies are going to be deployed in the U.S. for solar energy,”  said Tom Georgis, the company’s senior vice president of development. “As a developer, we took a look at the market conditions, the price of various technologies and made a strategic decision to diversify and expand our development portfolio to include PV products.”

Resch said that a mix of strong federal programs, such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program and investment tax credits plus higher technology efficiency, allowed the cost of PV solar systems to drop 20 percent last year.

Lower PV prices will help the domestic solar market double from 1,000 megawatts of new solar capacity in 2010 to 2,000 megawatts later this year, he said. That number could double again in 2012, if the DOE’s 1603 tax grant program is extended beyond its deadline this fall.

SolarReserve has more than 3,000 megawatts of CSP projects in various stages of development. Its 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy project on federal lands in Nevada just received a conditional offer of $737 million in loan guarantees from the DOE last week.

The 150-megawatt Rice Solar Energy Project near Blythe, Calif. — which would produce enough solar power for 68,000 homes annually — is also in the running for a loan guarantee.

SolarReserve has not disclosed the price tags of the projects, but CSP systems, also known as solar thermal, generally cost up to $1 billion to bring online.

The developer’s solar thermal technology requires the Southwest’s intense levels of solar radiation to reflect sunlight off a field of mirrors directed at a central receiver atop a tall tower.

As the receiver heats up, a fluid made from salt compounds runs through a boiler-like system that captures the heated liquid. The thermal tower can store the heated fluid during the day and run liquid through a heat engine at night to turn a generator and make electricity.

SolarReserve has no plans to slow down its CSP development, but the addition of PV solar to its profile can help the firm move beyond solar thermal’s geographic restrictions and to nab a share of the growing global solar market, Georgis said.

‘A Healthy Mix’

“SolarReserve’s philosophy and approach is that there is plenty of opportunity for both solar thermal and PV, and we think from a diversification standpoint that there needs to be a healthy mix” of both, he added.

Schott North America Inc. has echoed that sentiment at its $125 million Albuquerque solar manufacturing facility, where polycrystalline PV modules are made alongside receiver tubes for CPS systems.

“Schott has looked at the full spectrum of solar products, and being a component supplier, we thought there was opportunity … in both solar thermal and PV electricity generation,” Jim Stein, Schott’s vice president of government affairs, told reporters.

“We have hedged our bets across the spectrum.”

Of the 25,000 megawatts of U.S. utility-scale solar power in development, more than two-thirds are PV solar projects while around 8,000 megawatts are from CSP systems, according to SEIA.

Stein said that the Elmsford, N.Y.-based firm hopes to grow the New Mexico facility’s workforce from 300 employees to 1,500 as both solar markets expand in the next few years.

SEIA says that about 100,000 people are working in the U.S. solar industry today, a figure that  Resch said could more than double in the next two years.

Changing Economics

Just west of Schott’s manufacturing space, Arizona Public Service (APS), the state’s largest electric utility, is mixing up the way it distributes PV solar.

“There are a number of things we can do far more economically [today] than we thought we would be able to do just a few years ago,” Pat Dinkel, APS vice president of power marketing and resource planning, said on this week’s call.

Under the utility’s ongoing $500-million AZ Sun Program, APS plans to take ownership of 100 megawatts of utility-scale PV power plants developed by a third party.

Rather than snatch up a single large-scale solar farm, however, APS will take on six projects ranging from 15 to 20 megawatts apiece across the state. The utility to date has five contracts totaling 83 megawatts for PV plants in Gila Bend, Hyder, Chino Valley and the Luke Air Force Base in Glendale.

APS is also offering 200 customers in Flagstaff the chance to join a community pilot project. Participants will host distributed PV systems on their rooftops or properties and receive a long-term fixed power rate in exchange as APS studies how a saturated PV solar space might work.

An area school will host a 0.5 megawatt concentrated PV system connected to battery storage and smart grid technologies to run as a working lab for APS.

“We’ve certainly been able to deploy solar technologies much more effectively and reach different parts of the market because prices have come down and because of the way that PV is scalable,” Dinkel said.

The utility is also contracted to receive all the output from the 250-megawatt Solana solar trough CSP plant developed by Spain’s Abengoa Solar. The project in Gila Bend is backed by a $1.45 billion loan guarantee awarded by the DOE last year.

“We are seeing diversification [of solar technologies], and it is allowing us to be much more effective in deploying different solutions for our customers,” he said.