As everyone recovers from their New Year’s Eve festivities, shakes off the cobwebs and gets back to work, it’s time for our annual look at trends and predictions for the coming year. Who knows if we’ll be right, but it’s always fun to prognosticate. Here are the three big solar trends we see for 2015.
Competing effects of the oil price collapse on the solar industry
While virtually none of the professional oil price prognosticators are predicting that low oil prices are here to stay, we are likely to see generally low oil prices and correspondingly low prices at the pump for the next year or two. While the price of oil has almost nothing to do with the price of electricity (outside of Hawaii and other islands), low oil prices are likely to offer a significant headwind to solar sales in 2015, particularly in the residential market.
Psychologically, homeowners tend to think more about energy investment when prices at the pump are high and less about energy investment—any kind of energy investment—when prices are low. Stock prices for leading solar companies have also taken a beating as oil prices have declined, with industry leaders like SunPower and SolarCity down by 25% or more since September.
Low oil prices could bring one important benefit, however. The shale boom has resulted in oil exploration and drilling activities sucking up a larger and larger portion of business investment, rising from less than 3% of business investment in 2000 to around 12% of business investment in the U.S. last year. With oil investments set to decline dramatically in 2015, that money will have to go somewhere. Much of it may flow into the solar space, either directly into stocks like SunPower or SolarCity, into Yieldcos like TerraForm Power, or into residential portfolio funds. This will drive down the cost of capital for lease and PPA companies.
Ready, set, go: The ITC sprint
While the solar industry largely worries about the reduction of the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) from 30% to 10% at the end of 2016 (and to 0% for directly owned residential systems), the pending reduction of the ITC is starting to drive a rush to purchase. The solar industry has seen this boom-bust cycle repeatedly as rich incentives appear, then abruptly disappear.
For the next two years, we are likely to be in the boom phase of this cycle, with most customers that have ever thought about buying solar making a purchase or leasing before the large effective price hike on January 1, 2017. The abrupt ITC drop creates the kind of incentives that the plummeting ruble is creating in Russia. In Russia, shoppers are flocking to stores to buy everything they can before prices go up due to the loss of the ruble’s purchasing power. Here in the United States, solar shoppers will be flocking to their local installer before the ITC drops.
Utilities abolish the word “ratepayer”
The solar industry has finally awakened the utility, and is driving fundamental change in the relationship between the utility and utility customers. Before solar, consumers had little choice about where to get their electricity other than the regulated utility. This showed in the language used. Utility customers were called “ratepayers” because they simply paid an electricity rate to the utility that was generally set by their public utility commission. The rate has traditionally been based on utility costs and cost recovery mechanisms determined by the commission.
As utilities have begun to lose customers to distributed generation, particularly rooftop solar, the mindset has changed. Increasingly, utilities are referring to their customers as, well, “customers.” Beyond the change in terminology, utilities are actively looking at ways to engage, retain and upsell current customers, as well as recruit new customers. Look for more utilities to employ online tools to help engage their customers about energy choices.
Utilities are already actively participating in the solar market through non-regulated subsidiaries, like SoCore Energy (Southern California Edison) or NextEra Energy Resources (NextEra Energy). Arizona Public Service and Tucson Electric Power are each piloting programs to offer solar to customers in their regulated territory. Look for more utilities to begin thinking like competitive businesses in 2015, and competing for customer energy dollars by offering more choice and better value.
All told, 2015 is likely to be another exciting year for the U.S. solar markets and for energy broadly. Prices are in flux, policy is changing and business models are adapting. May we live in interesting times!