This has not been the best of times for the solar power industry. Recent bankruptcies, the lingering Solyndra fallout and continuing fights between massive solar projects and other stakeholder groups portray an industry in chaos.
But despite all the negative press, companies keep pressing on. SolarCity, the California-based installation giant, revealed yesterday it started filing documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission in a move towards an initial public offering. SolarCity’s announcement comes as BrightSource Energy disclosed that it would cancel its IPO in the wake of what the company described as lack of interest in investors. Another company that manufactures inverters, Enphase Energy, had to cut its IPO shares for half the company price. Does SolarCity know something about the market that the rest of us do not?
Dana Blankenhorn, a writer for The Street, believes the solar industry is close to a crossover, i.e. when its costs become less than that of conventional fossil fuels. While solar companies are currently stifled by a glut of products on the market, Blankenhorn says solar could become cheaper than any other energy alternative later this decade. Despite the current cycle of bust and shakeouts in the industry, solar panel manufacturers and installers should be able to make steady profits within a few years. GE certainly believes so, with the company’s estimate that the rising cost of fossil fuels will make them cheaper than solar in 2016. Department of Energy estimates are a tad more optimistic, with 2015 being the year.
Regardless of the exact year, Blankenhorn envisions a near future when solar panels transition from suffering in a buyer’s market to booming in a seller’s market. For now the strength in the industry with with the installers like SolarCity, who can pick and choose which panels to use for their projects. But eventually the demand for solar panels will lift those manufacturers out of their current doldrums . . . if they can hang on.
For now, however, watch for a painful industry shakeout to continue at least for a year. Just don’t view the current volatility as a meltdown, especially as companies around the world continue to improve the performance of solar and other clean energy technologies as companies and municipalities look to insulate themselves from the pattern of energy shocks that will surely continue. The SolarCity IPO timing may just be spot on.
Photo courtesy Leon Kaye.