Solar fans got some bad news last week when one of China’s leading solar panel manufacturers dropped word solar that rock-bottom prices for panels made in China will soon be a thing of the past. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean a win for fossil fuel stakeholders.
Solar Panel Costs Going Up In China
Our friends over at Reuters got the scoop on the Chinese PV price hike last week during the World Economic Forum in Davos.
More accurately, it’s a rebound. Prices in China collapsed by 30% last year when policy makers cut support for the country’s solar industry, leading manufacturers to scramble for cash by ditching inventory at rock bottom prices. Now prices have stabilized and are expected to drift upwards again.
Reuters cites the president of one of China’s top 10 solar panel manufacturers, Eric Luo, who memorably said, “The party is definitely over.” Luo expects prices to climb 10 to 15% this year.
That could have a significant impact here in the US, which is a major market for Luo’s company, GCL System Integration Technology Co.
Adding to the pain is President* Trump’s PV tariff, which went into effect last year, though the pain wasn’t nearly as bad as some expected. State-level renewable energy policies are still the determining factor for solar adoption in the US.
Concentrating Solar Power Costs going down in the US
It’s too early to tell if prices for Chinese solar panels will go up as much as 15% this year. Even if there is an uptick in costs, continued demand for more renewables by local governments and businesses will most likely continue to drive the US market.
Another thing to keep in mind is that solar panels are only one part of the PV market. Concentrating solar power is another element. CSP systems don’t use solar panels. They use specialized mirrors called heliostats to collect solar energy.
One recent development on that score involves the California-based CSP company SolarReserve. The company broke a cost record for CSP in 2017 and it has partnered with the Department of Energy on R&D efforts for the past ten years..
Last fall the company received another DOE award of $2 million to continue work on a next-generation heliostat system that is anticipated to make “substantial progress” in raising efficiency and lowering costs.
Among other projects, SolarReserve is currently laying plans for a 2-gigawatt CSP system in Nevada.
Plot Thickens Around Thin Film
Another rapidly moving development involves thin film solar technology, which was not affected by the Trump tariff. The US thin film market has been picking up. Just last last fall the company First Solar announced plans for a new factory in Ohio to produce its Series 6 thin film technology.
Thin film is not as efficient at solar conversion compared to conventional silicon-based PV panels, but its low cost, light weight, and range of applications make up the difference (check out this thin film market study published in the journal Nature last November, which advocates for thin film base on its high power-to-weight ratio).
Building integrated solar is another part of the market that will not be affected by rising prices for conventional solar panels from China. Building integrated solar refers to PV coatings and other solar technology integrated into roofing materials, walls, and windows.
Solar roofing shingles have been talked up for a while now because they cling attractively to the roofline, unlike conventional solar panels. Not much happened in that area until late last year, when the PV shingle dream finally turned into action. The company RGS Energy (aka Real Good Solar) announced that is picking up Dow’s PV shingle venture, giving Elon Musk’s solar shingles a run for the money.
PV windows are another area in which research has been progressing for several years without a mass market breakthrough. If you have any guesses for when that might happen, drop us a note in the comment thread.
PV-embedded textiles represent another area of application for buildings (think curtains and window shades), as well as tents and other structures.
Circling back around to conventional solar panels on buildings, exterior walls are another application ripe for growth.
Shorter version: China or not — and Trump or not — solar will continue to grow. The real issue is the pace of growth.
Considering the urgency of climate action, it is a national disgrace that the Commander-in-Chief continues to promote fossil fuels and put roadblocks in the way of renewable energy development — though it is certainly not shocking, considering Trump’s track record on any number of other issues.
Nevertheless, Trump’s energy policy amounts to nothing more than a massive game of whack-a-mole, and the moles are winning.
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Image (cropped): Proposed Sandstone CSP via SolarReserve.