With India Building Solar Power Stations For 65 Cents per Watt, Suniva’s ITC Complaints Kinda Make You Want to Laugh (and Cry)

So in the world of solar there’s various different price structures. There’s cell prices, there’s module prices, and then there’s total system prices. The cells are the little bits that go into a solar panel. The module is the solar panel itself. And the system is the complete array of modules that’s been racked, packed, and assembled.

Solar Cells are Now Produced For as Little as 20 Cents Per Watt

In business, the best way to get the lowest prices is to do things en masse. The largest, most efficient solar assembly plants in China and Southeast Asia now produce solar cells for as little as 20 cents per watt. As of June 28th, solar modules from this region were going for as little as 33 cents per watt.

Low to very low solar cell and module prices are helping to enable a mass global construction of clean energy producing solar power stations that are either competitive with other fuels — or that just basically blow them away when it comes to price. And such high volumes of renewable energy construction around the world are providing some hope that humankind will be able to stave off the worst impacts of fossil-fuel spurred climate change. A greenhouse gas based of warming airs and waters that is already threatening keys species, putting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in an existential crisis, and endangering the future of thousands of coastal cities as melting glaciers start to flood the world’s oceans.

Solar Power Stations For as Little as 65 Cents Per Watt

In the U.S., solar power stations now average about $1.10 cents per watt once all the cost of labor and construction is added in. For most instances, this price is competitive with highly polluting power stations like gas and coal. It’s about half the cost of nuclear energy. And solar prices are now also dipping below the price of new wind energy (which is also falling).

(GTM finds very low and falling prices for solar globally.)

In other regions of the world, solar energy is even less expensive. In the UK, Egypt, Mexico, China, and India, the cost of building a solar power plant is now $1.00 or less. A price which is now lower than the cost of a new advanced coal or gas power station. India, which boasts the least expensive construction costs for solar, can now build a renewable energy station for about 60 to 70 percent of the price of a comparable coal or gas plant at 65 cents per watt.

In this global economy, solar is now becoming cheaper than any other traditional source. It is also far cleaner than the other sources with the possible exception of wind. Solar has, by reducing costs so precipitously and by increasing access, become a game-changer both for the global energy market and for humankind’s prospects for reducing the considerable damage caused by fossil fuel based greenhouse gas emissions.

Subsidies vs Tariffs 

Enter Suniva, which is one of the world’s less efficient solar manufacturers. Based in the U.S., but majority owned by China, Suniva was unable to compete in a global market that produced solar cells for such low cost and high availability. This year, the firm filed for bankruptcy. The firm was unable to compete despite tariffs that the U.S. had already imposed on some solar panel importers. A set of tariffs that have already helped to make the U.S. solar market more expensive than other comparable markets. Tariffs that have arguably slowed U.S. solar adoption rates while doing little to actually protect less competitive manufacturers that would probably have eventually failed anyway.

The tariffs were, however, set in response to a legitimate gripe. Subsidies by China had probably created an unfair advantage for Chinese solar panel manufacturers. And these subsidies likely continue to generate advantages for such manufacturers in both China and in Southeast Asia. Subsidies that, in part, probably sped along Suniva’s bankruptcy and the approximate loss of 1.200 U.S. solar manufacturing jobs.

Suniva’s Selfish Suit Threatens to Wreck U.S. Solar Industry

Suniva’s response, however, is pretty overblown. One that threatens much of the solar market as it presently stands in the U.S. The corporation is asking for a $.40 floor on imported solar cell prices — which is basically double that of the lowest cost solar cell presently on the market. The company is also asking for a $.78 cent floor on import module prices — which is 45 cents higher than current lowest module spot prices. Such added costs would ripple through the U.S. solar production chain and would probably result in plant prices that range from $1.34 to $1.89 per watt. The reason is that the U.S. panel market is considerably dependent on imports and presently has few manufacturing plants that can produce cells and modules for prices low enough to prevent a big jump in industry-wide costs if Suniva gets its way.

(Evidence mounts that Suniva’s ITC case could sabotage the entire U.S. solar market. Image source: GTM.)

Such a jump in prices would result in considerable harm to the various solar companies that buy solar modules and build power plants, commercial and non residential systems by destroying a good deal of the present and rising solar demand in the U.S. This particular industry is now quite large and recent research by GTM indicates that as much as 66 percent of new construction could be halted if Suniva is allowed to so considerably distort the U.S. market. Ultimately, this risks the loss of thousands of jobs (not just the few hundred that have been lost in the manufacturing sector)– as much as 88,000 if the recent report by SEIA is correct.

So what’s the upshot? If Suniva’s suit goes through, it’s a big blow to both U.S. competitiveness and to our national responses to climate change. Chinese subsidies may, indeed, be distorting markets. But the solution that Suniva presents is basically to recommend drinking a hemlock that would kill off a big segment of the U.S. market while doing little to actually support U.S. solar manufacturing. Some jobs may trickle back as manufacturers try to meet the demand of a much reduced U.S. market. But the rest of the world will move on as incentives for U.S. manufacturers to improve dry up and as the home market itself contracts.

For the flip side of Chinese subsidies is that they not only subsidize Chinese solar manufacturing capacity, they also serve to advance a global energy transition through the mechanisms of direct investment and scaling. And there are so many larger benefits that the U.S. can take from the reduced pollution, increased secondary markets, increased competition, energy independence, and reduction of climate change based harms that are resulting from this major investment. The correct response is to meet investment and innovation with the same if we wish to reasonably compete. But the present federal administration appears to have completely lost sight of a better American future as it fights to regain the distorted ideal of an imagined past greatness.

Which is why Suniva’s ITC suit, in its present form, is at best short-sighted and at worst both selfish and broadly destructive.


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