Thursday, August 27, 2009

More Sun for Less: Solar Panels Drop in Price

August 27, 2009

By KATE GALBRAITH, New York Times

For solar shoppers these days, the price is right. Panel prices have fallen about 40 percent since the middle of last year, driven down partly by an increase in the supply of a crucial ingredient for panels, according to analysts at the investment bank Piper Jaffray.

The price drops — coupled with recently expanded federal incentives — could shrink the time it takes solar panels to pay for themselves to 16 years, from 22 years, in places with high electricity costs, according to Glenn Harris, chief executive of SunCentric, a solar consulting group. That calculation does not include state rebates, which can sometimes improve the economics considerably.

American consumers have the rest of the world to thank for the big solar price break.

Until recently, panel makers had been constrained by limited production of polysilicon, which goes into most types of panels. But more factories making the material have opened, as have more plants churning out the panels themselves — especially in China.

“A ton of production, mostly Chinese, has come online,” said Chris Whitman, the president of U.S. Solar Finance, which helps arrange bank financing for solar projects.

At the same time, once-roaring global demand for solar panels has slowed, particularly in Europe, the largest solar market, where photovoltaic installations are forecast to fall by 26 percent this year compared with 2008, according to Emerging Energy Research, a consulting firm. Much of that drop can be attributed to a sharp slowdown in Spain. Faced with high unemployment and an economic crisis, Spain slashed its generous subsidy for the panels last year because it was costing too much.

Many experts expect panel prices to fall further, though not by another 40 percent.

Manufacturers are already reeling from the price slump. For example, Evergreen Solar, which is based in Massachusetts, recently reported a second-quarter loss that was more than double its loss from a year earlier.

But some manufacturers say that cheaper panels could be a good thing in the long term, spurring enthusiasm among customers and expanding the market.

“It’s important that these costs and prices do come down,” said Mike Ahearn, the chief executive of First Solar, a panel maker based in Tempe, Ariz.

First Solar recently announced a deal to build two large solar arrays in Southern California to supply that region’s dominant utility. But across the United States, the installation of large solar systems — the type found on commercial or government buildings — has been hurt by financing problems, and is on track to be about the same this year as in 2008, according to Emerging Energy Research.

The smaller residential sector continues to grow: In California, by far the largest market in the country, residential installations in July were up by more than 50 percent compared with a year earlier. With prices dropping, that momentum looks poised to continue.

Expanded federal incentives have also helped spur the market. Until this year, homeowners could get a 30 percent tax credit for solar electric installations, but it was capped at $2,000. That cap was lifted on Jan. 1.

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