Environmental & Economic Benefits
The “green gold rush” is on. Global investment in renewable energy surged some 60 percent, to $148 billion last year. Investment in clean energy from wind, solar and biofuels rose three times faster in 2007 than predicted by the UN Environmental Program, with wind power attracting $50.2 billion, a third of all clean energy investments. Investment in solar energy soared by 254 percent to $28.6 billion last year. This “green gold rush” is propelled by the soaring fossil-fuel prices, and concerns over carbon dioxide emissions that fuel global warming.
The world is at an undeniable crossroad. Projections show three to four times more electrical power could be required over the next 50 years to support continued growth in population and economic output. Clean, renewable sources are the answer. “Unlike other major energy transitions, such as wood-to-coal and coal-to-oil, moving from oil to alternatives will be forced and rapid,” writes Charles Cresson Wood, President of Post-Petroleum Transportation, a consulting firm.
The Cost of Conventional Energy
In the last six years, uranium prices have moved from $7 a pound to $80 a pound. Coal has moved from $22 a ton delivered at the plant to $55 a ton, and natural gas has gone from $2 per million BTUs to $12 per million BTUs. Oil went from $20 a barrel to $145 a barrel.
As these dirty energy resources become more costly, so follows the delivered price of electricity jumping by 70 percent in the last six years in New Jersey and many other states. All analysts expect continued increases in electricity costs.
Americans Want Solar
94% of Americans say it’s important for the U.S. to develop and use solar energy. 72% favor extension of Federal tax credits for renewable technologies, and 77% of Americans want the government to make solar power development a national priority, according to the independent polling firm, Kelton Research, June 10, 2008. “These results are an undeniable signal to our elected leaders that Americans want job-creating solar power, now,” said Rhone Resch, President of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
“Solar development means job growth for Americans, by Americans, in an industry that will benefit America,” said Dr. Gerald Fine, President & CEO of SCHOTT North America. “Rather than rely on foreign sources for fuel, the U.S. can aspire to become the world’s leader in clean energy.”
General Electric, with a goal of investing $6 billion in renewable energy by 2010, already surpassed the $4 billion mark this July. GE says that within two years, renewable energy will make up almost a quarter of its total investments in energy, up from 10% in 2006. Investment banks Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs all plan to take advantage of global interest in renewable investments. Meanwhile, NYMEX, the New York-based stock exchange, recently formed a consortium of financial institutions to launch a Green Exchange to trade Renewable Energy Credits.
The Market Speaks: Renewable Energy Finance Forum Wall Street
Over 600 senior executives attended the 5th annual Renewable Energy Finance Forum (REFF) held this June in New York City. “Each year, we have increasingly seen financial leaders on Wall Street recognize renewable energy companies as an important growth sector for the US economy,” said Michael Eckhart, President of the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE) who hosted the forum along with Euromoney Energy Events. “This new reality has helped launch renewable energy investing into mainstream financial arenas and continues to drive the momentum of the industry,” said Eckhart.
Top analysts forecasted the industry’s potential in the US, for solar power, wind power and bio-fuels. Speakers also drew attention to wavering political issues threatening the viability of renewable developments as Congress currently debates the extension of critical investment catalysts like the Investment Tax Credit and the Production Tax Credit.
“Wall Street has shown us that the full forces of American innovation are ready to be deployed to meet our energy challenges. If government leaders can provide a stable long-term climate for investment, the renewable energy sector will see unprecedented growth, providing extensive economic opportunities and environmental benefits,” said John Geesman, Co-Chair of the ACORE Board of Directors and former Calif. Secretary of Energy.
GE Financial Services and ACORE released a report at the REFF weighing the long-term economic impact of wind development with the up-front cost of the production tax credit. The report found that the net present value of 2007 US wind development is worth $250 million more than the price tag for the tax credits, which was about $9 billion last year. According to the report, the tax credit pays for itself because of tax revenue received from wind projects, worker wages and other taxes. Once the PTC and ITC issues are behind the industry, the next big battle on Capitol Hill will be over a carbon-weighted policy like cap and trade, according to presenters.
“We simply need more energy. We’re not waiting around for governments to craft the perfect policies,” said Vivienne Cox, Executive Vice President of BP’s alternative energy business. “This is an important market, and we’re going to build a business around it.”
The US is currently the world’s fourth-largest solar power market after Germany, Japan and Spain. Japan is aiming for 30 percent of all its homes to have solar panels installed by 2030, bringing the number of installations to 14 million, according to Kyodo News. Japanese solar panel manufacturers, which include Sharp, account for half of the world output of solar power equipment.
Grid Parity is the point at which Photovoltaic (PV) electricity costs the same or less than power derived from the electrical grid. PV Grid Parity is expected beginning 2012 in places where sunshine is plentiful, and 2018 in areas of the world with medium sun exposure, according to a study in June from iSupply Corp., an electronics industry analysis company.
Worldwide investments in the production of PV cells will rise to the same level as those for semiconductor manufacturing by 2010, due to booming demand for solar energy. Each PV factory will require an investment of $500 million or more, employ as many as 1,000 workers per site and generate annual revenue of $1 billion per year or more.
By 2010, as many as 400 production lines in the world that can produce at least 1 Megawatt (MW) of PV cells per year, will be in place, representing a four-fold increase in production lines from 2007. Factories capable of 1 Gigawatt (GW) of annual PV production will also be established in the future, to ensure continued strong delivery of PV cells to the market. PV cell production will become cheaper over time, with cell makers Q-Cells, AG, and REC Group expecting a reduction in PV system costs of 40 percent by 2010.
Tom Werner, chief executive of SunPower Corp., the largest North American solar panel manufacturer, sees Grid Parity for solar power in the US and elsewhere happening in about five years, or possibly as soon as 2010. “That’s actually more aggressive than what we would say previously, and that’s because the cost of electricity is going up faster than we had ever modeled,” Werner said at the Reuters Global Energy Summit this past June.
Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd., one of the largest of a growing number of Chinese solar companies, sees the same five-year timeline, thanks to increasing supplies of silicon that will help drive down costs.
The end of polysilicon shortages could cause PV costs to drop in half. “It takes about two or three years to add capacity,” says Travis Bradford, an industry analyst for the Prometheus Institute. The shortage has been severe enough to drive up silicon prices to more than 10 times normal levels, to $450 a kilogram, adds Ted Sullivan, an analyst at Lux Research.
The Business Case For Solar Now
Right now, in New Jersey, the average kilowatt of electricity is being sold to residents at the rate of 18 cents kwhr. If you purchase a 5 kw solar PV system for $40,000 that could generate about 8,000 kilowatts a year, and could easily last for 30 years (panels often carry a 25 year manufacturer’s warranty), your system would generate about 192,000 kilowatt hours over the 30 years, after subtracting 20% for rated age. Now, if you take the 192,000 kilowatt hours and divide it by $40,000, then each kilowatt costs you about 15 cents. Would you rather pay for your own clean, renewable energy system, that carries a 25 year warranty, or purchase dirty electricity coming from coal, nuclear or oil sources, at the rate of 18 cents?
I asked energy analyst, Charles Cresson Wood, if he thinks the price of solar electricity is at Grid Parity now with conventional electricity, when analyzed over 25 years, the typical warranty period of today’s solar panels. He replied, “When one realistically considers the trajectory of the costs for fossil fuels, then solar, wind and other renewables are less expensive over a time frame such as that which you mention.” The analysis is based on research done for his book Kicking The Gasoline & Petro-Diesel Habit.
Solar Is A Better Choice
Energy consultant Jim Harding estimates the operating cost per kilowatt-hour for a new nuclear plant will be in the region of 30 cents for its first dozen years, only dropping to 18 cents after construction costs are paid down. With distributed solar at the low end of this bracket and dropping, and with concentrated solar and wind power estimated at 14 cents per kilowatt-hour, energy companies are backing away from their proposals for new nuclear facilities. Of the seventeen currently in the planning stage, Moody’s Investor Service only expects one or two to be on line by 2015.
A cap-and-trade provision would make it costlier to emit carbon into the atmosphere and discourage the burning of fossil fuels. The economics of solar and other cleaner energy sources would be even more competitive.
According to Amory Lovins, physicist and author, reducing carbon emissions would be cheaper and safer if nuclear was rejected in favor of alternatives that are sustainable. Investing in the nuclear option would suck up capital that would be spent more cost-effectively on renewable energy, efficiency and conservation. In contrast to the vast money pit required by nukes, every dollar invested in energy efficiency programs returns three dollars in electricity savings to utility customers.
While debates on disposal of radioactive waste, vulnerability to terrorist attacks, and large-scale use of fresh water required to run nuclear plants continue, it’s tough to argue with the numbers. If the debate is between a clean, renewable source such as solar, which can reach utility scale in some parts of the country, and a more expensive form of power that Wall Street investors won’t even touch, then the nuclear defenders may be running out of arguments. The bottom line is that nuclear costs two to 10 times more than its clean competitors.
Incentives For Renewables
There is not yet a national program in place, except for a 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) limited to a maximum of $2,000 for homeowners, with no limit for business. This applies to both solar PV and domestic solar hot water systems. The ITC will expire at the end of 2008, unless Congress passes an extension, which it is slated to do, by many political analysts.
Currently 25 states offer various incentives for homes and businesses. In New York, a rebate of approximately 50% is available for a solar PV system. New Jersey’s incentive program is going through a transition after offering an average of 60% rebates for the past seven years.
The plan is to move into a performance-based incentive, called the Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs), which pays the solar PV system owner annually based on the number of kilowatts produced by the system. A residential rebate of $3.00 per watt for solar PV systems, starting in 2009 till 2012 with incremental decreases is planned. That rebate would be close to 40% of the system cost.
For detailed information on specific state rebates, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.
Power Purchase Agreements & Leases
The use of Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) and similar leasing instruments to finance residential and commercial solar power installations is taking off. The commercial solar PPA market has already been active in California and New Jersey.
The Atlantic City Convention Center has awarded Pepco Energy Services, a 20-year PPA to install one of the largest single roof-mounted solar arrays in the US. Under the 20-year contract, Pepco will build, own, operate and maintain the 2.36-Megawatt solar array for the Convention Center. Construction is planned for completion by December 31, 2008. Jeanne Fox, President of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities states, “This is an example of the kind of initiatives we hope to see as we transition to the sale or trade of SRECs to pay for solar projects.”
Last year, half of all the commercial solar installs in the US were PPAs, and this year that number is running between 60 and 80 percent, according to Jon Guice, researcher at AltaTerra, in Palo Alto, CA, a green energy consultancy group.
Sun Run, one of the first PPA-based residential distributed power companies in California, offers a standard agreement providing electricity at 13.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for 18 years, according to Nat Kreamer, Sun Run’s CEO. “If you do a 30-year look-back, residential electricity rates in California have risen an average of 6.7 percent per year,” he says. They offer various up-front payment options, so that an increased payment would result in delivered electricity decreases.
“We found the sweet spot for customers is up to $10,000 for prepayment, and that they want flexible options for reassigning the contract when they move, and not a big buy-out at the end,” Kreamer says. “At the end of the term, customers can renew their contracts for a year at a time, or buy out the system at a fraction of the installed cost.”
Another form of financing for residential solar systems that requires less or no up-front payments, is leasing. David Arfin, vice president of customer financing at Solar City of Foster City, CA states that, “The big difference is with a lease: there is no money down, and in most cases homeowners are saving money from day one.” Solar City leases typically run for 15 years, after which time homeowners can purchase the system for 20 to 30 percent of the cost of the installed system. Leases can be extended for five-year increments.
“With a PPA, the residential host agrees to pay for certain kWh produced on his or her roof, and they have a variable payment depending on what is produced and used. With our lease, there is a fixed payment every month, but they still get the benefits of whatever excess power is generated,” said Arfin. “It’s sort of like the difference between leasing a car by the mile or by the week,” he adds.
A Home Equity Line of Credit is the most profitable choice for credit-worthy NJ homeowners to finance a solar system. Their monthly loan payment will be comparable to the savings on their current electric bill. After factoring in rising electric rates and the SRECs, the homeowner can get extra income from their solar purchase.
The fact is, unless you own your own electric generating system, or have a set price agreement with a PPA or PPL, you are leasing your power from a utility company with no control over its future cost.
Clean Power Finance has tools and loan products to make the purchase of home solar power systems more affordable. Clean Power Finance tools assist with completing the rebates, and match multiple funding options. Everything is done online.