Solar Tribune

Solar Trends: 2017 Year In Review


Looking back at my New Years Day 2017 solar predictions, the solar stories I missed, and what to watch for in 2018.

On January 1st of 2017, I dropped my annual predictions for the coming year in the solar industry. I kicked off Solar Trends to Watch in 2017: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly by tooting my own horn a little bit about the accuracy of my 2016 predictions. How did I do this time around? Well honestly, maybe not quite as well, but in my defense, I think we can all agree that 2017 had a LOT of surprises. At the same time, some things that were question marks at the beginning of the year remain unresolved. Let’s look at last years predictions, and you be the judge.

Lat Year’s Predictions

Solar Storage Breakthrough: “Breakthrough” may be a bit strong, but I think “significant progress” would be an understatement. New storage products hit the market on a regular basis during 2017, and a bevy of new players, including industrial giants like Lockheed-Martin, Mercedes Benz and Caterpiller, announced their intentions to get into the market. Sadly, it may be the devastation of the Puerto Rican power grid by Hurricane Rita that will push solar + storage into the mainstream.


Trump Will Embrace Solar: Okay, hear me out on this one. Yes, I know that this prediction seems like a long-shot… maybe even the result of a moment of madness. Yes, I pointed out that Elon Musk was going to be a presidential technical advisor, and that Musk bailed as soon as Trump dumped the Paris Climate agreement. But this might still happen. We have yet to see what decision Trump will make on the Suniva case, and although his anti-free-trade and anti-China rhetoric would lead one to believe that he will grant the request for an embargo, I honestly think that he could go either way.
I do think that solar will continue to grow in the next four years, and at some point, Republicans will see that. I predicted that he would claim victory for new solar business by the end of his first term, and I’m going to wait a full three years before admitting defeat on this one.


Solar Will Build Local Economies: This one was a no-brainer. Despite slower growth in 2017, the solar industry has tripled solar installation jobs across the country in the last six years, increased property values, increased local tax revenues and kept dollars circulating in communities. “With a near tripling of solar jobs since 2010, the solar industry is an American success story that has created hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs,” said Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director of The Solar Foundation.

Global Solar Growth Will Slow: Unfortunately, I was right about this one as well. Solar installations slowed in 2017, both in the US and globally. The market has run hot for several years now, and as the industry matures, growth inevitably slows. In some areas, aging infrastructure is reaching its capacity for handling new solar generation.

Panel Prices May Go Too Low: It wasn’t a stretch to predict that panel prices would drop again in 2017, and it was no surprise to anyone when they did. But have they fallen TOO low? For manufacturers, the answer is yes. Trina and other solar panel makers are canceling the construction of new manufacturing facilities. For American installers, it is a mixed blessing…lower panel prices mean offering customers more affordable systems, but it also means a constant race to the bottom on the margins.

Tesla Will Have A Tough Year: I’m going to stick by this prediction, although you wouldn’t know it from the constant hype around everything that Elon Musk touches. Hey, I’m an as much of an Elon fan-boy as you will find, but the fact is, Solar City’s business has dwindled since being acquired by Tesla, the Solar Roof is AWOL, and the Powerwall is not exactly blowing up the market. Now, word on the street is that the Gigafactory is causing a global cylindrical battery shortage. Still, customers seem to be willing to “pay it forward,” and for now, all the balls remain in the air.

More ALEC Anti-Solar Lobbying: As I said last year, behind virtually all of the anti-solar legislative action happening in states across the country is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The organization has fought a state-by-state battle against rooftop solar, and that battle continues. There is an interesting twist in the story though- both ALEC and the conservative Heritage Foundation have come out against the tariffs requested in the Suniva/SolarWorld case. I think the message here is that they aren’t opposed to solar–they just want to make sure that large energy companies stay in control of it.

So, how did I do? Not terrible, I think. But what were the big solar stories that I did not see coming in 2017? There were a bunch.

Suniva/SolarWorld Case

Troubled American solar cell manufacturers Suniva and SolarWorld went to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) looking for the relief because Chinese manufacturers of solar panels have flooded American markets with panels at prices too low for U.S. manufacturers to compete. Suniva filed a petition with the Trade Commission seeking “… a recommendation to the President of four years of relief of an initial duty rate on cells of $0.40/watt, along with an initial floor price on modules of $0.78/watt. Petitioner also seeks other equitable remedies that will effectively assist the domestic industry to make a positive adjustment to import competition. The FTC has found in Suniva/SolarWorld’s favor, and we are waiting to hear if President Trump will put the tariffs to in place.

World’s Largest Lithium-Ion Storage Facility

Row of lithium-ion energy storage batteries at Escondido

Photo by SDG&E

San Diego Gas & Electric, in partnership with the Virginia-based company AES Energy Storage, unveiled the largest lithium-ion energy storage installation in the world this year. The 30 megawatt (MW) facility contains 400,000 AES Advancion® batteries, similar to ones found in electric vehicles. The batteries are installed in nearly 20,000 modules and placed in 24 containers. Also, the Escondido facility is alleged to be 50 percent larger than the next-largest such installation.

Solar Incentives Survive the Tax Bill

The House version of the tax bill took aim at incentives for solar, wind and electric vehicle, but thankfully, Republican renewable energy supporters in the Senate prevailed. The House bill also would have ended a tax credit for investment in solar power for commercial properties and large solar farms. More immediately, the House bill proposed changes to eligibility rules that would make it harder for solar farm investors to claim the credit in a given year. In the end, the permanent 10 percent tax credit survived, and the eligibility criteria remained the same.

Solar Plays A Major Role In Puerto Rico’s Recovery

The collapse of the Puerto Rican electrical grid is a textbook example of what happens when a monopoly utility lets its infrastructure fall apart. In July, even before hurricane Maria struck the island, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) defaulted on a 2014 deal to restructure its debt. Everything PREPA could do wrong, they have done wrong. Puerto Ricans have been paying an insanely high price for low-quality service for years, and now, they are paying the ultimate price. The damage across the island is estimated at over $95 Billion, and in the wake of the storm, 3.4 Million people were without electricity. After Maria, replacing Puerto Rico’s shattered power grid with solar micro-grids is a no-brainer, and solar companies from across the world are stepping up.

What Lies Ahead?

I have to admit, my crystal ball is cloudy concerning 2018. There are just SO many variables that could effect where we are heading in the new year. I expect that we will see installations in the US and Europe continue to flatten out as transmission issues continue to be a problem. President Trump could single-handedly increase the chilling effect on the solar market in the U.S. by imposing a tariff on Chinese solar panels. State legislature’s will continue to be heavily lobbied by big-money energy companies to shut out indie rooftop solar. It could be a rough year.

On the other hand, Trump may chose not to impose tariffs. this could send a strong signal to the industry and reduce uncertainty. Battery storage is growing fast, and improvements in that sector may reduce grid-related growth issues. Microgrids continue to mature. Equipment efficiency increases, technology prices drop, and price parity with fossil fuels illustrates that solar is a mature industry. Against the odds, Solar is going to continue to compete and capture a growing market-share. For that, we can all be thankful.

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