Gazing into the crystal ball is an annual tradition among solar soothsayers this time of the year.
Below are 8 predictions for solar power in 2015, as wagered by industry insiders, stock analysts, consultants, researchers and yours truly.
Not all of these predictions are of the same nature, however, as some are concerned with short-term trends while others reflect major milestones or turning points in long-term developments.
“True trends take years to develop, and what are described as current trends are almost always fads,” cautions Paula Mints, founder of SPV Research Market Research and a veteran solar market analyst. “In 2015, several PV industry staples will continue to gain strength while some short-term trends (or fads) may decrease.”
1. Solar markets immune to oil price drop
While the final data is still being crunched, annually installed solar power capacity, here in the United States and globally, most certainly expanded again in 2014. This trend continues in 2015, losing little-to-no steam due to plummeting oil prices, projected investment analysts Pavel Molchanov at Raymond James Financial and Vishal Shah at Deutsche Bank in separate research notes sent to clients last week.
Primarily a transportation fuel, oil’s share of global electricity generation is only about 5 percent. In the US and Europe, it’s only around 1 percent. In places such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia, oil does make up a more meaningful share of the power mix, but not an omnipotent one.
The two factors that matter most are the price of electricity – solar versus grid – and the unique value of solar.
2. Solar stocks hit by oil price drop
In an example of the irrationalities of the stock market, however, falling oil prices will impact solar stock prices in 2015, as already happened in the second half of 2014.
Sometimes sentiment, even if unfounded, trumps fundamentals.
Solar-focused funds such as Guggenheim Solar ETF and Market Vectors Solar Energy ETF will continue to mirror petroleum’s downward price plunge, almost as if in lock step.
But certain solar stocks could hit prices well below their values, making for good investments.
“In our coverage universe, relative winners included Enphase, Advanced Energy, and SolarCity – all companies that have virtually no derivative impact from lower oil prices,” wrote Molchanov.
3. Grid penetration: 10% is the new 1%
Following a year in which worldwide solar power generation likely surpassed 1 percent of global electricity use in a given year for the very first time, at least one major solar market will surpass 10 percent in 2015.
IHS Solar analysts predict that market will be California: “IHS expects that by the end of 2015, California—the largest renewable power market in the United States—will attain worldwide leadership in market share of annual power generation received from solar PV.”
Some of the leading national markets in PV penetration, such as Italy, Germany and Greece, are also approaching 10 percent of electricity from sunlight on an annual basis. According to the International Energy Agency, these countries supplied about 6-8 percent of their power from PV in 2013.
The US hovers only around 1 percent today. But as goes California, so go the nation and the world: to over 10 percent solar, beginning this year.
4. Solar on Mars, utilities on Venus
Both literally and figuratively, solar and utility industries will populate different planets again in 2015. While solar-powered vehicles explore Outer Space, sending home tantalizing images of alien landscapes, electric utilities and the solar industry back on Earth will continue to operate as if on Mars and Venus – but, or course, they will orbit the same sun.
“Utilities will play defense by getting more involved and owning more solar, particularly [distributed] PV,” projects Paula Mints.
“If one good thing came from the US solar lease model, it stirred up the utilities and made them take [distributed] PV more seriously – now utilities want to either own the system on the roof or limit its net metering potential.”
Mints hopes the industry bands together to explain to electricity consumers why this is not good. “If the utility owns the hardware on your roof they are controlling your roof and this is the opposite of energy independence,” she says.
She adds, “Utilities will pressure governments to add even more controls to what can be connected to the grid – to which the industry should respond, ‘Give me a break, you have had years to develop strategies and technologies to mitigate the variability of renewable resources.’”
The fundamental conflict, anonymously expressed by an energy industry insider in October, may be this: “If a utility makes money on capital and doesn’t make money on distributed energy resources, because the customer owns them, now we have an institutional puzzle that’s solvable – but it is not solved right now.”
It won’t be solved in 2015, as competing aspirations continue to define the relationship between utility and solar industries – even if they are now competing for sunlight.
5. Progress on price parity
The levelized cost of energy from utility-scale solar in the Desert Southwest has dropped 78 percent over the past five years, according to Lazard. This has enabled solar power plant developers to seal long-term contracts with utilities at prices in the range of around 5 to 7 cents per kWh over the past year.
Wholesale solar power prices don’t need to be lower to reach parity with wholesale grid power in many places. This is why companies such as First Solar already have begun building merchant power plants to compete with conventional generation in markets like Texas.
In 2015, solar power prices will continue to make progress on price parity with the grid – both in wholesale and retail markets. This will have as much to do with solar cost reduction as grid price inflation. My utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, kicked off 2015 by raising rates by 6 percent for the average household.
You can bet local solar installers are pleased.
6. Distributed solar storage accelerates growth
IHS analysts predict that grid-connected PV energy storage installations will triple in 2015, reaching 775 MW in 2015.
“The PV power system is evolving away from the traditional and relatively simple system of one-directional flow — from large-scale conventional generators through transmission and distribution lines to consumers, to an increasingly complex mix of small, distributed generators and consumers at all points in the electricity grid,” explains IHS.
This could go hand in hand with a strong year for distributed solar in general, predicts Mints. “As incentives decline or face restrictions globally, the PV industry will turn back to its long time staple, [distributed] PV – power at the point of use,” she says.
7. Financial innovations: loans over leases
“Watch out for loans with annual escalators – hopefully the U.S. government will step in with a national low-interest loan guarantee (below 5 percent),” she says, adding, however, “With the expected gridlock in congress hope may be all the industry gets.”
Molchanov of Raymond James sees solar bonds ramping up in 2015. Not only are new financing tools such as solar-backed securities and yieldcos on the rise; they will help reduce non-technology soft costs.
8. Maturing emerging markets
Solar installations tend to be concentrated in all the usual places: China, Japan, Germany, Italy, the United States and other top markets. In 2015, some new names will emerge.
IHS predicts that Chile will be the next emerging market, after South Africa, to reach 1 GW of installed PV. “Aside from Chile, other new emerging markets poised for rapid growth in 2015 are Jordan, the Philippines and Honduras,” according to IHS analysts.
Molchanov also sees some new markets emerging within the United States. “While all states, including California and even Hawaii, have substantial room for further penetration, some second-tier markets are also becoming needle moving,” he says, pointing to North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana.