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Clean Power solar panel costs subsidies

Published on October 4th, 2012 | by Guest Contributor

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Are Subsidies Holding Back U.S. Solar Deployment? (CleanTechnica Exclusive from Jigar Shah)



Editor’s note: While we here at CleanTechnica have focused on the ‘soft costs’ of solar making German much cheaper than U.S. solar, one of the world’s leading solar and climate change solutions entrepreneurs and investors, Jigar Shah, contends that the cost differences are actually largely due to another factor — high U.S. subsidies. Have a read and then let us know what you think.

By Jigar Shah

As the Founder of the largest solar services provider, SunEdison, I had a hand in putting in place subsidies so that we could reduce costs through scale in local markets. This strategy has resulted in an average system cost reduction of over 50% since 2008.

But today, solar subsidies in maturing markets like the United States are actually holding us back, not propelling us forward. In fact, Germany has hit an all time high for solar capacity with 30-gigawatts peak (GWp) of solar power installed. Germany has done this by installing solar at far cheaper prices than we are in the United States. That is because solar subsidies are manipulated by investors like me to maximize our returns. The truth is that installers in the United States can, and do, install solar at roughly the same cost as German installers – save for some increased soft costs. If we want to reach higher growth, we need to phase out the solar tax credits and other solar subsidies in mature markets and watch the price of solar fall.

The reasoning behind my strong stance is that, based on the cost of solar that I am personally investing in, solar is now cost-effective without subsidies for ideal customers in 300 utilities in 30 US states. Those 300 utilities account for about 20% of all of the electricity sold in the United States (using Energy Information Administration Form 861 data). Based on my experience, my thesis is that phasing out these subsidies will lead to 1) greater system cost reductions, 2) lower cost of money, and 3) greater standardization in the industry – all leading to a greater acceleration of solar PV deployment in the United States.

My conclusion is derived from the living laboratories of India, Germany, and the UK. While I was initially skeptical that the elimination of high subsidies would help lower the consumer price, my skepticism was abated through a clear review of the data. My initial feeling was that competition alone wasn’t enough to drive prices lower. But recently India, Germany, and the UK have drastically reduced their feed-in-tariffs and a curious thing happened – prices to investors came down. Most of the industry believed that this would lead to much less solar getting installed — in fact, the opposite occurred. Solar installations went up because the local solar industry cut prices to keep investors interested. While most folks would see how this might happen in a mature market like Germany that has a four-year head start, younger markets like the UK and India were also able to replicate the cost reductions. Today, the average large commercial solar installation in the UK is installed and sold to investors for less than $2/Wdc – same as Germany. In India, where the basic building block is a 5-MW utility scale project, the systems are installed in less than two months for about $1.70/Wdc.

In the United States, commercial solar prices are stuck stubbornly above $3/Wdc (although installation costs are very similar to Germany and the UK). The reason for these high prices is that for commercial companies able to install for $2/Wdc, the existing US subsidies are so rich that developers can charge more and still meet investor expectations. There is no incentive for commercial project developers (like SunEdison) to pass these savings onto investors as long as the investors are satisfied with the current returns they are receiving. Today, US solar subsidies need to be phased out so that we can complete the transition to grid parity.

Separately, solar in the United States suffers because it cannot access low-cost money, due to our reliance on federal tax credits. Even though low-risk certificates of deposit pay just 1.5%, and Canadian energy trusts just 4.75%, the US solar industry is paying in excess of 10% to investors. Why? Two words: tax equity. Most investors cannot use tax credits because of arcane passive investment laws passed in 1986 – where oil and gas are of course exempted. If the numbers work without those subsidies, why not just invest even if you can’t use the subsidies? The reason is basic human psychology — if the subsidies are available, people want to use them. If they can’t use them, investors would rather not invest then “leave money on the table.” This tax credit dilemma also prevents professional investors like Fidelity from offering the middle class investment products through which families could invest in solar in their communities.

Professional investors like Fidelity are also important because they drive standards. Today, some people estimate that 95% of solar sales efforts are wasted because they are chasing customers that are unfinanceable. Since most of these sales folks are paid on commission, they have no rational interest in wasting their time, but because of a lack of standards, they have not been given clear instructions on the ideal customer and the ideal terms of the contract.

In 2012, the solar industry will have over 100,000 employees installing over 3,000 megawatts of solar, attracting close to $12 billion in investment. The solar industry is not small. The solar industry now employs more people than the oil & gas pipeline industry, coal mining, and iron & steel manufacturing. By 2016, the last year of the 3o% federal investment tax credit, the US solar industry will be installing 4X the megawatts and employing 2X the number of people. This can only happen if we can find over $7 billion in tax equity – while the available tax equity market is around $5 billion. If we can phase out our federal tax credit from 30% to 10% by 2017, we could live below the $5 billion cap and continue our rapid growth rate.

Recently, Nancy Pfund and others made a passionate case that the federal government actually receives more benefits from the 30% federal investment tax credit over 20 years than it costs. This line of argument is as accurate as it is irrelevant. The US solar industry needs mainstream finance, lower costs, and greater standardization to reach 12,000 megawatts by 2016. Germany doesn’t install much cheaper than the US; they price less than we in the US because their subsidies have fallen faster than ours.

I get that fact that coal and gas are still subsidized and that solar shouldn’t phase out our subsidies until we have a level playing field. Everything is possible, but we need to create a roadmap to greater growth and face up to the realities of our industry. This is the largest wealth creation opportunity on the planet and it is about time that the US solar industry starts staying ahead of the game.

Jigar Shah, is CEO of Jigar Shah Consulting and a partner at Inerjys, a $1 billion fund that invests in clean energy via growth capital and project finance. Jigar is an entrepreneur and visionary committed to creating the next $10 trillion economy by unlocking capital markets that invest in proven technologies to achieve two goals: solving the biggest problems of our time and generating market-competitive, compelling financial returns for investors.

Jigar’s first foray into realizing this mission was the founding of SunEdison in 2003, today the world’s leading solar services company. SunEdison simplified solar by making it a service through the implementation of the power purchase agreement (PPA) business model. This groundbreaking model helped turn solar PV into a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide.

After successfully exiting SunEdison, Jigar served as the first CEO of the Carbon War Room, the global organization founded by Sir Richard Branson to harness the power of entrepreneurs to deploy proven climate change solution technologies at scale. Jigar’s leadership was instrumental in helping build the organization into one of global importance.

Jigar is a regular contributor to top-tier media and is author of an upcoming book on the Impact Economy.

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  • chris geiger

    great post. the German’s are leading the way. they are smart & practical & green minded, proving that this form of energy can be BOTH profitable and good for the planet…. maybe even create a few jobs along the way too!

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.t.peffly Matthew Todd Peffly

    While I agree in principle. I still have trouble with the fact that so many people fight to remove solar and wind support and in the next breath fight to keep/raise support for gas/oil/coal/nuclear. Or act as if the US government never supported them. So here is a plan that I think more people would find fair (a true level playing field).
    1) Remove ALL support/loop holes from tax code for ALL energy. This will look like a large income increase to the Feds.
    2) Add sin tax to carbon like we do for smokes, and dont grandfather in existing industry. Yes hits coal utilities and cement plants hard, but they know how to solve that. Yes, it will hit airline tickets and gas pump. Also would need to handle the collect at the boarder issue. But carbon tax has been done in detail else where. This need to be large, the Harvard study price coal utility health cost at $0.5Trillion a year, and that is without the weather impacts. Let peg the the current value at $5Trillion for 2013.
    3) Money from (2) split equally for each person as a credit on federal tax forms. You have to be on a federal tax form in the correct year to get it. Any left over goes into next years pool. My grandma who doesn’t pay taxes (98 years old, no income) gets the same has Mr. Trump.
    Notice that 2 and 3 together are revenue neutral, minus several percent for collection.
    Most half the “funds” from 1 sould pay down debt, the other half should fund a new energy plan.
    - What is the “correct” funding for new technology.
    - Need to push forward load balancing, either heat/cooling, or energy storage. We should have a 5-10 plan to move these into the market.
    - Energy efficient program: Say a program similar to CCC but for returning vets. Training to do aduits and efficient retrofits, and then turn them loose on federal (gov and military) buildings, then state/local government buildings including schools.
    We are almost there, now the one that is harder. Currently the US government (read tax payers) are on the hook for all long term risk or large failure. Lets talk nuclear first since it is easy to see.
    Who provide insurance to nuclear power plants? Who provides long term storage? If there is a major failure, who handles the cost them?

    • Bob_Wallace

      I mostly agree with your ideas but don’t think we should remove subsidies for wind, solar and other renewables too quickly. These are still emerging technologies, give them a chance to mature. They don’t need anything like the “100 years” support we’ve given fossil fuels but wind and solar probably need something like another five years. Even less mature technologies like tidal should be supported for a reasonable amount of time.
      Pull supports for fossil fuels now. That might move prices up a tad which would put renewables in a stronger position and cut the number of years that renewables need support.

      • RobS

        But Bob what if as many of us believe it is precisely the susbsidies that are preventing the industry from maturing? What subsidy program’s need is a phased withdrawal schedule set right from the start, when a subsidy is gradually withdrawn as the Australian REC multiplier is the result has been that the system costs have fallen such that the end price to consumers has remained essentially static, that is total system prices have fallen almost exactly on step with subsidy reduction. Now that may be coincidental but I highly doubt it, I firmly believe the subsidy withdrawal has directly influenced system price reduction which are now below $2 per watt retail in Australia and still falling.

        The other point that I may have missed as Jigars article is excellent but voluminous is that the subsidies lead to a significant degree of political and population backlash from those on the right. There is a significant percentage of the population who would be resistant to the idea of installing solar simply because of deeply held beliefs against subsidies and government support. A phased withdrawal and eventual conclusion of subsidies would add all of those people back in to the potential customer pool for renewables and likely end the majority of the political opposition.

        • Bob_Wallace

          PV solar. Perhaps it’s time to start scaling back the subsidies. If it’s fairly clear that installed prices would fall as the subsidies faded out.

          I’d still like to see the industry supported in ways that accelerate installations. Perhaps low interest loans, perhaps subsidies for low income home owners.

          Other renewables, I’m not so sure. Offshore wind is just getting started in the US. Some subsidies would be needed to get the infrastructure in place, I would think.

          Maybe it would make more sense to spend the money on transmission and storage.

        • Kevin Quilliam

          The rapid fall in the Australia REC multiplier has resulted in significant impact in the Australian solar market. It is in fact a counter-example to the U.K. example described in the article.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000555199360 Tami Kennedy

      I think a couple of the tax subsidies providing large benefits to the legacy fuel industries are actually available outside of those industries. Just with the high oil/gas profits they are seen as easy targets. Removing them only from oil would seem to mimic the proposed ‘millionaire’s’ income tax increase or the expiration of the 250k reduced rates while making lower income rates permanent.

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