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Posts Tagged ‘Sungevity’

csi-report

The other day I ran into Danny Kennedy, president of solar installation company Sungevity, on the playground as we were picking up our kids at Malcolm X Elementary (we live in Berkeley). I had spent the week chronicling layoffs at various solar and wind companies so it was with a bit of trepidation that Green Wombat asked Danny how business was going at at Sungevity.  “Great,” he replied as I quizzed him about the impact of the recession. “We’re as busy as ever.”

Apparently so. A report released Wednesday by the California Public Utilities Commission shows that residential and commercial rooftop solar installations in the Golden State more than doubled in 2008 from the previous year to 158 megawatts. What’s more, a record-breaking number of applications to participate in California’s $3 billion solar rebate program were filed in December as the drumbeat of bad economic news grew deafening and the state’s unemployment rate hit 9%.

Are Californians being crazily contrarian? While one would think that a $30,000 solar array would be one of those luxuries most people would put on the back burner in bad times, there are some solid economic reasons for the surge. First, rebates for solar systems under the California Solar Initiative get less lucrative in 2009 as incentives fall as the amount of installed solar rises.  Then in October Congress lifted the $2,000 cap on the federal tax credit on solar arrays, allowing homeowners and businesses to take a 30% tax credit on systems installed after Dec. 31.  Add in the state rebate and the cost of a solar system in California suddenly fell by half.

“The surge in applications occurring in the fourth quarter of 2008 is particularly noteworthy given the slowdown in the economy that occurred during the same time period,” the report’s authors noted. “In addition to environmental benefits such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, it appears that solar energy is benefiting California by serving as an economic bright spot in the economy.”

And therein lies some lessons as the U.S. Congress debates how to promote green jobs. Two years into the California Solar Initiative, the taxpayers’ investment of $775 million in solar rebates has yielded $5 billion in private investment in solar projects and rapidly expanded the state’s renewable energy industry, according to the report. That’s helped create strong solar companies like solar cell maker SunPower (SPWRA) and markets for thin-film solar companies such as First Solar (FSLR). The decade-long program is on track to achieve its target of 3,000 megawatts of rooftop solar and in the first two years of the program more solar has been installed in California than in the previous 25 years.

While California regulators expect the pace to continue in 2009, the big unknown is how many homeowners and business owners will drop out of the program and cancel their applications if the economy continues to deteriorate rapidly this year. The current dropout rate is 15%, according to the report.

“We are hopeful that many of those pending projects will move forward,” Molly Tirpak Sterkel, who oversees the California Solar Initiative for the utilities commission, told Green Wombat. “We’re also cognizant of the economy and economic forces that may pose a threat to those installations.”

Demand for solar is far stronger in Northern California than in sunny SoCal. Northern California utility PG&E’s (PCG) customers have installed more than twice the megawatts of solar than Southern California Edison (EIX) customers. And the report notes that while applications for commercial arrays in PG&E’s territory rose 71% between April and December 2008, they fell 23% in Southern California Edison’s area. San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), which covers a much smaller service area, saw applications triple for residential solar arrays.

Sterkel says it is unclear why Northern Californians are going solar at a much faster rate than their southern counterpart, but it may be due to differences in electricity pricing and more mature solar markets in regions like the San Francisco Bay Area. “There’s just that many more solar companies with experience, installations and sales channels, ” she says.

Solar panels seem to be sprouting from Bay Area rooftops like California poppies after a late winter rain. In Berkeley, the city has launched a program that pays for residential and business solar arrays upfront and let owners pay the cost back over 20 years through an annual assessment on their property taxes.

Which also may explain why I seem to be seeing more of those Sungevity signs around town.

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solarcells

photo: Southern California Edison

While demand for solar panels is expected to continue to grow by double-digits in the years ahead, 2009 could be a make-or-break year for some companies, according to an analysis from HSBC Global Research.

After grappling with a shortage of polysilicon – the base material of conventional solar cells – for the past couple years, the industry now faces falling prices. The spot market for polysilicon has plummeted 35% since October, writes HSBC alternative energy analyst Christine Wang, who predicts prices will fall 30% next year.

That’s bad news for solar module makers who locked in long-term contracts at higher prices – which looked like a smart move when polysilicon was in short supply and prices rising rapidly. “The winners will likely be the companies with competitive cost structures, scale, good product  quality, strong balance sheets, and strong customer relationships,” according to Wang. “We believe that new entrants and small players will suffer the most as they lack brand recognition.”

The culprits are the usual suspects – the global financial crisis as well as some cutbacks in subsidies from countries like Spain. Solar cell companies that have rapidly ramped up production over the past two years now may be saddled with too many high-priced products.

Wang downgraded Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) and set a price target of $4.50 – down sharply from HSBC’s earlier target of $55. Suntech was trading at near $10 Monday afternoon but still nearly 90% off its 2008 high.  (SunPower (SPWRA), First Solar (FSLR) and other solar cell makers have also seen their share prices nose-dive.) “High portion of polysilicon based on contract prices will hurt Suntech,” writes Wang, who estimated that 80% of Suntech’s polysilicon supply is locked into contracts “on less favorable fixed prices.”

Falling panel prices is good news for solar system installers like Sungevity and Akeena Solar (AKNS) and their residential and commercial customers. When Green Wombat ran into Akeena CEO Barry Cinnamon in San Francisco at the announcement of Better Place’s Bay Area electric car project, he said he was in no rush to enter into long-term contracts with solar cell suppliers as he expects prices will continue to fall in 2009.

Still, not all the news is gloomy for the industry. Wang expects that the financial crisis won’t derail government support for solar, given climate change pressures and state mandates to increase the use of renewable energy. The move by utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) to sign long-term contracts for electricity from photovoltaic power plants will also keep demand high in coming years.

Wang projects solar cell demand will grow 45% between 2008 and 2012. “Developed countries are increasingly focused on environmental protection and curtailing the causes of climate change, and we do not believe this trend will shift just because of a (hopefully) short-term financial crisis,” she wrote.

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BERKELEY, Calif. – The Berkeley City Council Tuesday night gave final approval for the nation’s first municipal program to finance solar arrays for homes and businesses.

The city’s Sustainable Energy Financing District could accelerate the adoption of rooftop solar by overcoming one of the biggest obstacles to homegrown green energy: the $20,000 to $30,000 upfront costs and long payback time for a typical solar system.

Here’s how the program will work: Berkeley will seek bond financing up to $80 million for the solar program – enough to install solar arrays on 4,000 homes and pay for some energy efficiency improvements. For those who sign up, Berkeley will pay for the solar arrays and add a surcharge to the homeowners’ tax bill for 20 years. When the house is sold, the surcharge rolls over to the new owner.

According to city staff, a typical solar array will cost $28,077 – you won’t find many McMansions in this city by the bay) – and after state rebates, $22,569 will need to be financed at an estimated interest rate of 6.75%. Berkeley is counting on obtaining a favorable interest rate given that the debt will be secured by property tax revenue. (And to answer the inevitable question, the foreclosure rate in Berkeley is low and property values have been relatively stable. How the meltdown on Wall Street will affect the program is another matter.)

For a typical solar system, the homeowner will be assessed an extra $182 a month on her property tax bill. To put that in perspective, the property tax bill on a $800,000 house – your basic middle-class home here if it was bought within the past three years – runs about $900 a month.

Electric bills are relatively low in Berkeley due to the temperate climate – Green Wombat’s was $15 in August. The real benefit of the program may come if it is used for solar hot water systems and expanded to pay for energy efficiency measures, such as installing new windows and insulation in Berkeley’s housing stock, most of which dates from the early 20th century.

The remaining hurdle is for the city to secure financing at a favorable rate. Once that is obatined, the program. which has won the support of local utility giant PG&E (PCG), should also be boon for solar panel makers and installers like SunPower (SPWR), SunTech (STP), Akeena (AKNS) and Sungevity.

The solar program is designed to help Berkeley meet a voter-approved mandate to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

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In late 2006, there was something of an exodus from Australia as solar startups decamped for California, frustrated by the long-entrenched conservative government’s tepid support for renewable energy. On one Sydney-to-San Francisco flight alone could be found David Mills, co-founder of solar power plant company Ausra, and Danny Kennedy, chief of solar installer startup Sungevity.

Flash forward 18 months and solar energy companies are beating a path back to Australia. Ausra recently opened up operations Down Under, and last week Silicon Valley solar company SunPower (SPWR) acquired an Australian solar installer called Solar Sales. So is Oz the next hot solar market? By all accounts, the sun-baked environmentally conscious country should be. But the move into the South Pacific is another example of how governments’ ever-morphing renewable energy policies are spurring solar companies to move operations around the globe.

“Obviously there’s a lot of sun in Australia but with the recent change in government there’s a policy environment that could be much more favorable for us,” Peter Aschenbrenner, SunPower’s vice president of corporate strategy, told Green Wombat. “We decided to get in now. It was a little opportunistic as the owners of  Solar Sales were looking to monetize their investment. It follows a model of a previous acquisition in Italy where we got in before the market headed north.”

Last November, a left-leaning Labor government took power in Australia, immediately signed the Kyoto Accord and expanded a national subsidy for rooftop solar panels. Meanwhile, individual Australian states, much like their American counterparts, have enacted their own incentives. Three states – Queensland, South Australia and Victoria – have adopted “feed-in-tariffs” that pay homeowners a premium for electricty produced from solar panels – up to four times the prevailing power rates. Solar homeowners that return  more electricity to the grid than they consume can zero out their power bill or even earn cash from their utility.

But the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has shown the same propensity to alter the rules of the game mid-stream as its predecessor, which wreaked havoc on the wind industry several years ago when it abruptly curtailed a renewable energy target. The Rudd government already has changed course on a national solar subsidy – which provides rebates up to $A8,000 for photovoltaic systems – to make it available only to households earning less than $A100,000 – which qualifies as middle middle-class in Australia’s big cities. Some of the states in turn have limited their subsidies. Victoria – Australia’s second-most populous state – will pay premium solar rates to only 100,000 households.

Given that solar is a game that moves as you play and the relatively small size of the Australian market (population: 20 million) Kennedy for one is cautious about doing business in his homeland.

“I think that it’s potentially a good market in the future,” says Kennedy, a former longtime Greenpeace activist who’s close to Australia’s environment minister and other government officials. “But it’s not living up to its potential because there’s a set of mixed signals from the federal and state governments and no certainty from one year to the next.”

Just how quickly the market can change has been illustrated by Spain, a solar hotspot that has attracted SunPower and other solar power plant builders as well as financiers like GE Energy Financial Services (GE)  with its lucrative premium rates for green electricity. But now the Spanish government is considering cutting its feed-in-tariff and limiting it to an annual 300 megawatts of installed solar, 100 megawatts of which must be rooftop photovoltaic systems. By contrast, some 1,100 megawatts of solar were expected to be installed this year. That would dramatically change the economics for solar energy companies that have moved into the Spanish market.

“This is something we’ve been preparing for,” says Aschenbrenner of SunPower, which has focused on building photovoltaic power plants in Spain. “With our global footprint, we are well placed to move allocation around as these markets wax and wane. In Spain, we’ve been working on building a dealer network to focus on the residential and small commercial markets.”

In Australia, SunPower will need to ramp up its new acquisition since Solar Sales operates on the country’s isolated West Coast while most of the country’s population is concentrated on the eastern seaboard. About half of Solar Sales business has been building off-the-grid power systems for Outback communities that rely on diesel generators for power. Aschenbrenner says he expects that business to continue but the focus will switch to residential solar.

photos: Todd Woody

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