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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Commodity competition: good for buyers, bad for sellers

Except for those favoring symbolic consumption, electricity is by definition a commodity. For most intents and purposes, the sale of equipment that produces electricity is also commoditized.

Through technology improvements, manufacturing improvements, scale economies and good old fashion competition, prices are getting lower — bad for sellers, good for buyers.

One data point on wind comes from a GE executive, speaking Tuesday at the Renewable Energy Finance Forum-Wall Street. The quote comes from Kevin Walsh, who the GE website says is “Managing Director and Leader of Power and Renewable Energy at GE Energy Financial Services” — in reality the GE spokesman for its RE businesses, part of the $18b/year “Ecomagination” line of products and services.

The quote was in a Renewable Energy World Twitter tweet:
@REWorld: "Cost of wind down 40% in the past 3 years. Call it grid parity -- it's happening folks and that's exciting. " Kevin Walsh of GE #reffws
I looked for RE World to post a real story but so far it hasn’t happened. Still, 40% in 3 years is pretty impressive: not quite Moore’s law (50% in 2 years), but (at 80% every decade) well ahead of the historic PV trend of 50% a decade.

Still, on an annualized basis, PV can top that — both for the past month and the past three years. Prices plunged recently for the upstream supply of crystalline silicon, at least according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance:
The June issue of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Solar Value Chain Index shows that the spot price of solar grade silicon fell by 28% month-on-month to $53.4/kg, relieving some pressure on downstream manufacturers of wafers and solar cells.

The price of 6" multicrystalline silicon wafers dropped by 23% in June to a record low of $2.39/piece. At the next point in the production chain, multicrystalline silicon cell prices were down 15% in June to $0.92 per Watt.

Module prices are also falling, though at a slower rate, with a 6.5% decline in June bringing crystalline silicon modules to $1.68/W. Chinese manufacturers are offering modules at significant discounts, with prices at $1.49/W, while modules manufactured outside of China are still priced higher, at $1.79/W. Prices for solar modules are now 58% lower than in the third quarter of 2008.
The “June” results are based on a survey conducted between June 2-8; “The Solar Value Chain Index started in May 2009 and the Module Price Index was launched in November 2010.”

Why the precipitous fall?
Martin Simonek, solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said: “Currently the markets are oversupplied with modules, as manufacturers seek to reduce their inventories in markets that are demanding cheap modules because of reductions in subsidies. Producers are preparing for a painful consolidation that could see several players exit the solar industry.”
Naturally, price cuts are a double-edged sword for the industry: lower prices spur adoption and total industry volume, but hurt (or kill) profits.

Or as another speaker at the REFF Wall Street conference remarked this morning:
@REWorld: Solar system costs cut by 1/3, now they don't like the stocks. People still aren't happy but we'll get there. -- Amy Smith #reffws
Note: I interviewed Simonek today for additional clarification. More in my next post.

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