What Else Besides Low Cost is Driving the Growth of Solar?

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Last year marked a turning point in the renewable energy field. Growth of 36.5 GW in newly installed solar generating capacity exceeded that of wind power, which grew by 35.5 GW. True, wind power has been backsliding a bit, with investment dropping from $73.8 billion in 2012 to $58.5 billion in 2013. This is primarily due to uncertainty around whether Congress would renew the Production Tax Credit (PTC) at the end of the year. They did not, as it turns out, though prospects for a new bill are looking good right now, after a last minute push through the Senate Finance Committee. Financial data shows that wind power has attracted 17 times more private investment than the tax credits were worth, proving that the technology has wings, as long as the government is willing to level the playing field. Still there was a slight overall decline in renewable investment for the year, dropping from $248.7 billion to $247.6 billion for the year.

The decline could certainly not be blamed on solar, which grew from $79.7 billion to $91.3 billion over the year. Costs, which dropped by 20% in 2012, stabilized in 2013 falling a mere 3% for the year. So that was not the main reason for the growth. Prices are already low enough for many people, even reaching “grid parity” in many areas. In fact, solar module process have fallen so far, that right now, the module price is only around 10% of the overall installation cost. The Solar PTC, which is still in place, is scheduled to expire in 2017, which could slow growth unless market forces become strong enough to carry it forward without help.

Financing has now become the long pole in the tent. This is the area where innovation is needed, and it is already beginning to appear.

Solar City, for example, has pledged to reduce installed cost by 5% per year through 2017, which would, in essence cover the loss of the PRC. Much of that will come from financial innovation.

Panelists at the MIT Energy Conference named three types of innovative financing arrangements that they considered up and coming. These include

  • Master limited partnerships (MLP) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT)

  • Crowd-sourcing, and

  • Securitizing solar assets

MLPs can be traded like stocks, but are taxed at a lower rate. MLPs have long been used for oil and gas investments, but have not been available for renewables to date. The idea to include renewables under this type of tax structure, which would make it more attractive to investors, has some support in Congress in both Houses and on both sides of the aisle. REITs, are similar, though they apply to real estate holdings. A number of REITs however, are already investing in renewables through a mechanism called a TRS, which is short for a taxable REIT subsidiary. Presumably these can be converted to REITs once the law changes, but in the mean time, the assets have already been acquired by the parent company.

Solar City may have been the first to start securitizing solar assets, which is where solar obligations are packaged like mortgages and offered as investment vehicles. This bundling can produce the larger scale and lower risks that are attractive to institutional investors, which bring lot of capital to the table. Solar City raised $54 million in their first round of funding.

Crowd-sourcing, or crowdfunding of solar projects has been taking off, most notably with Mosaic, who claims to have their arms around a $90 billion opportunity, by allowing individuals to invest small amounts into solar installations, thus opening solar investing “to the masses.” They advertise an internal rate of return between 4-6% plus 1% for themselves, resulting in a very attractive 5-7% cost of capital.

Mosaic has recently partnered with RGS Energy to offer solar as a service where a third party retains ownership of the equipment and leases it to the homeowner. This is another funding mechanism that is finding a significant foothold. These are either packaged as leases or Power Purchase Agreements (PPA). The two are quire similar, although with a lease, monthly payments are the same each month, whereas with a PPA, the payments depends on the amount of solar production. Some of these, along with energy-efficiency projects can be financed through the utility bill as on-bill financing or on-bill repayment. Another variation available through the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, is to make payments for the work along with property taxes.

RE-volv creates a Solar Seed Fund into which community members can contribute that can be used to fund solar projects. The team estimates that the proceeds from one successful project can finance four additional projects, thus allowing solar power to spread like wildfire.

So far, 2014 has had a strong start for solar investing with some $7 billion raised, compared with $5 billion in Q4 of 2012.

When these financing options are combined with the kind of marketing that has been utilized by folks like SmartPower, it would seem like there will be no stopping it.


[Image credit:Sun Directed: Flickr Creative Commons]