It has been widely assumed among pundits and policy makers that the continued expansion of solar photovoltaic (PV) installations will drive down PV costs until the electricity they produce is competitive with conventional power sources without the need for subsidies. This belief is grounded in both recent PV cost trends and the well-known "experience curve" effect in manufacturing, in which costs tend to fall in proportion to cumulative output. However, anyone following the fortunes of big PV manufacturers like First Solar, SunPower, and China-based Suntech and Trina Solar might have reason to question this conventional wisdom. Their latest earnings reflect an industry stressed by softening demand in its core market in Europe and facing global overcapacity along the supply chain. This has me wondering how much of the recent decline in PV prices was due to the inherent progression of the technology, and how much to unsustainable market and competitive pressures.
The solar industry has made tremendous progress in the last several years. One indication of that is the price trend for PV in the annual "Tracking the Sun" survey from Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Between 2007 and 2010 the average cost of PV installed in the US fell by around 22%, with the largest portion of that drop occurring last year, followed by a further 11% decline in the first half of this year. Most of the reduction is attributable to the falling price of solar modules, rather than from the non-module, or "balance of system" costs (inverters, structures, installation, etc.) The fact that these declines coincided with an explosion of global PV capacity and output seems entirely consistent with expectations about the likely path of PV costs. Cumulative global PV capacity doubled twice in that interval, based on figures in the newly released Renewables 2011 Global Status report from REN21, so we'd expect to see strong experience-curve cost reductions.
The problem is that the industry dynamic behind this trend didn't much resemble the pristine image that the term "experience curve" evokes, of diligent engineers relentlessly focused on continuous improvement. Without diminishing the contribution of a lot of smart people, a key driver was the tough competition for market share between silicon-based PV, which had to overcome a major bottleneck in the supply of its primary raw material, polysilicon--the price for which spiked and subsequently collapsed--and cheaper but less efficient thin-film PV technologies relying on entirely different chemistries such as cadmium telluride and copper, indium, gallium and selenium.
A further hint that this wasn't quite the standard picture of predictable cost declines promoted by the PV industry is that PV prices appear to have been falling faster than actual costs, which in the case of at least some manufacturers are no longer dropping much at all. This can be inferred from the compression of gross margins reported by the leading firms, and in results that show profits stalling or falling even as volume grows. SunPower, the largest US silicon-based PV maker, reported a net loss for the third quarter of 2011, following a loss in Q2, and issued guidance forecasting a loss in 4Q, as well. We'll get a better picture of the health of the big China-based producers when they report 3Q earnings next week, but in the second quarter Suntech, the world's largest solar panel maker, reported a substantial loss, even though sales were up by a third from a year earlier, similar to results at rival JA Solar. In response Suntech and other Asian producers have apparently slowed planned expansions and reduced throughput at existing facilities, while US PV leader First Solar postponed its new factory in Vietnam.
It's a testament to the ingenuity of the big, established PV producers that they haven't all shared the fate of Solyndra after investing so much in expanding capacity ahead of demand--a major accomplishment in itself when demand has been growing by roughly 80% per year--only to see the market weaken due to a prolonged economic slump and a financial crisis in Europe that has undermined the ability of governments to provide generous subsidies for PV installations. Assumptions about the future cost trend of PV won't mean much if the industry doesn't emerge from its current difficulties as a collection of healthy firms with solid balance sheets and financial performance that investors find attractive. That will require better margins achieved by some combination of improved pricing power--implying better matching of capacity to demand--and cost reductions that don't just rely on further scale-up, which will become less fruitful as experience-curve benefits stretch out.
In other words, even if PV manufacturing costs continue to fall quickly for the next few years, it's less clear that the PV prices paid by project developers, businesses and consumers will follow suit, particularly if the current low margins lead to a global shakeout or consolidation among producers. Time will tell whether the solar industry can sustain the cost path that it's been on, or if future cost reductions will be more modest, in which case a number of scenarios for future PV penetration and renewables-based emissions reductions would require revision.