On-Grid Solar: An Industry in Plight (Government-dependence perils)
“Without these subsidies … ‘On-grid PV,’ would be virtually non-existent. It only exists because the solar industry lobbied government officials to compel citizens to purchase this otherwise non-economic energy source.”
“Included in the list of failed solar companies is Solon of Germany whose corporate slogan was ‘Don’t Leave the Planet to the Stupid.’ Fortunately for taxpayers, it appears Solon will be leaving the planet.”
A recent Wall Street Journal article, Dark Times Fall on Solar Sector(December 27, 2011), surveyed the latest solar industry fallout, as well as overviewed the financial condition of the surviving companies.
But the article seems to mistakenly equate the fallout to viability as if better profits would mean sustainability. The industry is not viable, but this is unrelated to the recent fall-out. The industry was growing and profitable in the recent past and was equally non-viable then. The difference is that with profit-enabling government subsidies intact, many established U.S. and European manufacturers are now competing with China. And they cannot compete.
There is a measure of justice in this recent turn of events. The old adage “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword,” comes to mind. In this case, one might say, “the industry that lives by government intervention dies by government intervention.”
The U.S. solar industry has seen remarkable growth in the past six-to-eight years, principally on the backs of taxpayers and ratepayers who have been forced to shoulder a significant percent of the cost of these solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to make them appear financially viable as on-grid resources.
The solar industry has amassed a ridiculous collection of additive subsidies, which total upwards of 80 to 90% of the total lifecycle cost. They have lobbied every conceivable legislative body to garner special handouts for installing the systems and production subsidies (Net Metering) for operating the systems.
This industry is artificial. Without these subsidies this market segment called “On-grid PV” would be virtually non-existent. It exists only because the solar industry lobbied government officials to compel citizens to purchase this otherwise non-economic energy source.
In fact, they did such a good job of creating an enormous demand, that it attracted the attention of manufacturers and governments around the world, governments whose only subsidy is perhaps favorable lending to those companies that wish to sell into this artificial marketplace.
Global Subsidies, Calls for Protectionism
So now those same solar companies, which lobbied so heavily to plunder the public coffers, are through some grand act of justice being forced out of the business by Chinese manufacturers, who can produce panels at much lower cost. This industry built on government intervention in the marketplace is now dying because of possible Chinese government intervention in the marketplace. I call that just deserts.
So what is the response of the U.S. solar industry? It’s mixed, but continues on the same self-serving path it has followed. Some panel manufacturers are trying to block solar imports from China, which leads me to believe they’re not really that concerned with green house gas emissions after all.
Solar installers are against the restrictions, because the cheaper panel prices are increasing the sales of PV systems and they’re as happy as ever to continue riding the subsidy gravy train. Both segments are guilty of participating in a massive plunder of public and private moneys.
It is almost comical watching manufacturers and installers fight over the import restriction policy. The manufactures want the restrictions so that they won’t have to compete against the low-cost panels from China, and the installers like the low prices so they have more business, thus showing little concern for the U.S. manufacturers who created the subsidies in the first place. Is there no honor among the plunderers?
The oversupply of panel production is the direct result of government subsidies for solar. The article, in part, credits the oil price boom for the investment surge, but solar is not a substitute for oil. Installing solar panels does not reduce our oil imports. Solar PV offsets electricity and only about 1% of our electricity is made from oil, so I can’t believe investors invested in solar in response to high oil prices, nor for the reason of climate concerns, since solar is a very expensive means of reducing GHG emissions.
Reality Check Needed
It is far more reasonable to assume that investors invested simply based on a belief that subsidies and mandates would continue for many years. The subsidies created an artificial demand, which those investing in the industry surely understood was unsustainable. But apparently they did not correctly foresee the competition.
And fortunately for the taxpayers, who were helpless against the massive lobbying efforts of the industry, the Chinese manufacturers have come to the rescue. So if we’re being forced to buy panels, at least we can buy less expensive ones.
The best possible outcome for the U.S. taxpayers at this point is:
1) those companies most responsible for the solar subsidies lose interest because of the competition, and
2) there is a widespread realization that our utility mandates are accomplishing little except supporting the Chinese solar panel manufacturing industry.
Hopefully, these two outcomes will result in a shuttering of the political forces sustaining the subsidies and the subsidies will finally end.
PV Grid Parity: Still Illusory
One other point worth noting about this article is that the cost of PV is finally down to about $1/watt, which is the price many in the industry claimed was the price needed for solar to reach grid parity without subsidies. Well, $1/watt is finally here and solar is still far from grid parity. The truth is even if China could sell panels to installers for 1¢/watt, the systems would still be too expensive. Even with free PV, the cost of installation, mounting structure, inverters, wiring, etc. make the systems financially unsustainable.
The article concludes with the statement that “as technology advances and costs drop, solar-panel makers can supply power without a need for heavy government subsidies.” This leaves the reader some hope that on-grid solar PV will wean the world off fossil fuels, but this is wishful thinking. There is no guarantee that the prices will ever reach the point of grid parity without subsidies.
PV would reach grid parity if the total installed cost plus the net present value (NPV) of the operations and maintenance cost were at or below about $1/watt. But given that the PV panels alone cost $1/watt, and the total system cost for utility scale PV arrays is still $3.75/watt not including the NPV of O&M costs, I don’t see on-grid PV as a rational bet. Unless of course, one gets to bet with other people’s money and can ignore the moral implications.
Perhaps it will someday be necessary to wean ourselves off fossil fuels for reasons of supply limits or environmental issues. If that happens, normal market forces will rebalance both the supply and demand of energy in logical and rational ways. Till then we’ll just have to suffer through yet another economic bubble created by government intervention in markets.
Will we never learn?
As a final note, included in the list of failed solar companies is Solon of Germany whose corporate slogan was “Don’t Leave the Planet to the Stupid.” Fortunately for taxpayers, it appears Solon will be leaving the planet.
David J. Bergeron is founder and president of SunDanzer of Tucson, Arizona, a leading provider of solar-powered refrigerators and freezers world-wide. He has worked in the refrigeration and aerospace industries for 21 years and holds key refrigeration patents used by his company.
Bergeron graduated with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University cum laude in 1982 and from the University of Houston (Clear Lake) with a Masters in Finance in 1985.