Whether 2013 was a good or bad year for the solar industry and all of its technologies and participants is a factor of personal perspective as well as the vagaries of memory.  For manufacturers enjoying a return to positive gross margins low cost raw materials (polysilicon) are to be celebrated but for producers of raw materials low prices are hardly celebratory.  While many manufacturers are enjoying recovery of a sort, past leading manufacturers, such as Q-Cells and Suntech fell from great heights ending in soft, to not so soft, to very hard landings. Feed in tariffs rules changed (sometimes retroactively) or ended and tender bidding forced margin constraints on large developers.  The lease model and its potential for high profits (once the hardware is paid off) drove solar deployment in the US residential sector, at least for now.  Vertically integrated PV cell/module manufacturers committed more module product to the system sides of their businesses (as good a way as any to avoid selling technology below cost).  

As 2013 ends and top ten lists, including predictions for 2014 continue popping up, a short look back is in order. In order of publication in the Solar Flare bi-monthly report, some moments of note from the Solar Flare, (feel free to write in to SPV Market Research with some of your own):

Solar Flare February 2013 Issue:

  • US flexible CIGS manufacturer, SoloPower (Oregon) announced a restructuring.
  • China-based crystalline cell and module manufacturer Hareon announced an initial $50-million investment in a 600-MWp manufacturing facility in Mexico.  Doing the math, at $0.08/Wp this is either one good investment or, the facility is unlikely to be built or, there is more money for this project somewhere.
  • News leaked that the PPA for First Solar’s Macho Springs installation was $0.06. No comment.
  • Mexico based module assembler Solartec announced that it had acquired Belgium based crystalline manufacturer Photovoltech and planned to dismantle and move Photovoltech’s manufacturing facilities to Mexico, leading to the question: did I hear that correctly? Nonetheless, if countries in the Latin America region are serious about deployment it will be far less costly to be serious about manufacturing at the same time.
  • California’s CSI program reached its limit ahead of its 2016 deadline.

Solar Flare April 2013 Issue:

  • The US DoE announced funding of $7-million for projects on Indian lands. (Comment:  Though some US Indian tribes have casino generated wealth, many are poor and could benefit from the construction jobs that come along with deploying solar as well as well as the potential revenue stream from system ownership and finally from the availability of reliable and clean electricity.)
  • US based CPV manufacturer Amonix announced a record CPV module of 34.9%
  • China based crystalline manufacturer JA Solar announced commercial production of its monocrystalline (19.6% conversion efficiency) and multicrystalline (18.1% conversion efficiency) MWT cells. 
  • US-business based SunPower (manufacturing in the Philippines and Malaysia) announced US availability of its X Series modules using its Maxeon Generation 3 cells (~24% conversion efficiency).
  • CPV Manufacturer Soitec finalized a ~$100-million bond to finance its 44-MWp installation in South Africa.  Doing the math, this is $2.27/Wp.
  • Among a host of almost monthly bad news for former top ten crystalline manufacturer China based Suntech, the company closed its US (Arizona) module assembly facility, founder Dr. Shi was replaced as CEO and South Korea based OCI (polysilicon) cancelled its long term supply contract.  Unfortunate news for Suntech plodded on through 2013. 
  • US based flexible CIGS manufacturer Solopower shuttered its Oregon manufacturing facility leading to a flurry of reporting about the similarities between Solopower and Solyndra as well as many references to CIGS technology being both promising and new.  There are no similarities between Solopower and Solyndra.  Yes, CIGS/CIS remains promising. Though commercial shipments of CIGS/CIS began in the late 1990s, early 2000s, the technology is ~20 years young.
  • US based (with manufacturing in Malaysia) CdTe manufacturer First Solar announced it had acquired US based crystalline manufacturer TetraSun also noting that it would begin commercial shipments in 2014. 
  • Jinko and Yingli announced loans, (likely under favorable terms), with China’s Development Bank

Solar Flare June 2013 Issue:

  • K Road Power LLC cancelled its 294-MWp Calico project that was to be located near Barstow California, had switched from CSP to PV and was acquired from Tessera Solar.  (Comment: Hopefully this proves that announcements about deployments, among other things, are not sure things until construction (not just a fence) has begun and just possibly not even then.
  • Utility Hokkaido Electric Power in Japan rejected 1.2-GWp worth of applications for FiT solar installations.
  • With amazing efficiency, Italy’s FiT reached its cap and the government announced the ending of its program in July 2013. 
  • The Government of Ontario, Canada replaced its large FiT program with a bidding system, proclaiming the move as the way to get even more solar installed.
  • Romania made changes to its FiT program to control growth.
  • Spain reduced subsidies for renewable technologies – again – by an additional 20% thus ensuring that no one will likely make any money from the country’s brief, briefly profitable but long term painful FiT.
  • The EU imposed tariffs on Chinese imports
  • The WTO ruled in favor of the few remaining EU based manufacturers over Ontario’s domestic content requirement in its not-exactly wildly popular FiT.
  • Hopefully surprising no one, Greece announced retroactive reductions to its FiT.
  • Taiwan based TSMC (licensed Stion’s CIGS technology) announced a champion module efficiency (this means not in production) of 15.7% for its CIGS technology.
  • Japan based Solar Frontier announced 14.6% conversion efficiency for a champion cell developed on production equipment.
  • Taiwan based cell manufacturers DelSolar and NeoSolar finalized their merger and will hopefully live happily ever after. 
  • Canadian Solar announced its commitment (~50% of its future revenues) to its system business, a perfect example of an announcement that is essentially meaningless but does get people talking.
  • Hemlock filed a $96-million lawsuit against Isofoton. Ouch.

Solar Flare October 2013 Issue:

  • The EU and China agreed on a 0.56 Euro/Wp price for modules imported from China as well as a limit on imports.  Immediately following the heralding of the announcement countless (meaning too many to count) ways around the set in stone requirements were found and implemented.
  • The Netherlands announced it would close five coal plants – now this is an announcement worth making.
  • SolarCity, continuing its acquisitive ways, acquired mounting company Zep Solar.
  • IKEA announced that it would include China-based Hanergy’s CIGS module kits in its UK stores, by which they, of course, mean they will do so when these kits are commercially available. 
  • In California Governor Brown signed SP43 requiring investor owned utilities (IOUs) to install 600-MWp of solar above the state’s 33% RPS on environmentally disadvantaged or economically disadvantaged areas with system sizes limited to <20-MWp. Also in California, AB327 required the CPUC to develop a new standard for commercial and residential net metering as well as monthly fees and new electricity rates.  (Comment: Even given potential pushback from ratepayers, two giant steps forward towards the way solar will be valued in the future given that in the future the current paradigm will be restructured to favor self-consumption, wider use of renewables and the use of the utility grid as backup storage. Utilities should get on board now with ownership of solar assets and the renewable community should help them. )

2013 was another year of triumph over the significant obstacles and constraints that remain in the path of the solar industry and all of its participants – yes triumph, despite everything progress in the face of significant obstacles is a triumph worth celebrating. 

Recognition of climate change and the various government announced commitments to ameliorating it are simply not moving fast enough to retard the damage already done and ensure against future damage.  Real progress in this regard will require a herculean effort to change the minds and hearts of energy consumers everywhere that conservation is not sacrifice, that renewable technologies provide real independence and that though the switch will be costly, it is far less costly than the alternative of climate disaster.