The following is a guest post written by Dan Harding. Dan has written numerous articles on the solar industry, and is a regular contributing author to CalFinder.
Will Solar Prices Fall into Grid Parity?
By Dan Harding
The Holy Grail…in solar-speak, it translates roughly to Grid Parity. It is a goal either mythical or predestined, depending on which side of the solar power movement the speaker resides. A recent surge in supply and technology, coupled with increased government subsidies, are tipping the scales toward destiny, although by no means is the path to grid parity set in stone. The rapid fall in prices for solar panels and other system components in an oversupplied and flooded market could continue home solar power on its way to that mythical Grail but, all mythos and wishful thinking aside, what are the odds?
Good, says Swami Venkataraman, Director of Corporate and Government Ratings at Standard & Poor’s, in a recent assessment of the U.S. solar market for Renewable Energy World. As of February, 2009, installed costs for residential and commercial photovoltaic (PV) systems had fallen to $7.60 per watt from $10.50 per watt just two years earlier. Prices continued to fall throughout 2009 and, while expected to stabilize somewhat as the national economy rebounds, they should remain on that downward slope in 2010 and beyond.
So when will solar cross that line? It could be soon, very soon in regions of the country with either abundant sunlight (southwest) or relatively high electricity costs (northeast). Yet some valuable help is still needed at the legislative level which, if provided, could propel solar power to grid parity in the short-term in the aforementioned regions.
Three factors, says Venkataraman, can help make PV cheaper than, say, a combined-cycle gas turbine plant. One or all of the following could ensure solar power a level playing field in the long term:
Renewable portfolio standards that make renewable energy credits (RECs) more valuable
The passage of carbon legislation that would force gas power producers to buy carbon credits, thus forcing an increase in price for natural gas.
Including incentives, solar power is already close to grid parity in many areas. The Northeast holds the handy combination of some of the most lucrative solar incentives (per watt installed) in the country, as well as the highest electricity prices. Therefore, solar has far less distance to make up to reach at least natural gas, and gives solar power the best and fastest chance to reach grid parity in the nation. In California, where incentives have been declining for several years now, the primary advantage is in abundant sunlight (same goes for Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas, etc.), as well as a powerful RPS and a general eagerness from the public to adopt clean energy.
But as those two examples illustrate, grid parity will almost certainly NOT come to the United States as a whole all at once. Federal incentives were expanded in 2009, including the removal of the $2,000 cap on residential systems and the admittance of utilities into the Investment Tax Credit, but continue to vary widely between states. The feds provide a baseline subsidy, but what truly makes solar affordable for most homeowners and businesses are the added incentives offered by their state. So, in terms of reaching grid parity, we can expect the Southeast — despite its healthy share of sunshine — to be the slowest to reach the Holy Grail. This is due primarily to a lack of incentives, low electricity costs and a deep connection to fossil-fueled electricity.
Without incentives, there is still a real chance for PV, especially commercial PV, to reach grid parity in the relative short-term. Current capital costs for commercial PV are about $5.50 to $6.60 per watt depending on the size of the installation, according to Standard & Poor’s. Incentive levels in many northeastern states are upwards of $4.00 per watt, which means that, given incentives, the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) of commercial PV systems was already below standard commercial rates. Furthermore, if falling panel prices enable systems to reach or fall below $5.00 per watt, then solar PV could reach parity even without subsidies.
Residential grid parity is more distant but still closest in the Northeast. Outside of the Southwest and Northeast, where solar irradiance and/or electricity costs make the solar-grid-parity question more complicated and uncertain, help will have to come from other renewables. Most notable among these are geothermal (Northwest) and wind power (Midwest). It is important when discussing grid parity for solar power not to forget its intermittency and the fact that some backup power system will be needed. Even if our solar infrastructure were so advanced as to provide all our power needs during peak load times, we would still need alternative sources to pick up the slack on cloudy days and at night.
Of course, straight-laced economics aside, we must also consider the inherent value of solar power beyond mere dollar signs. The point of renewable energy is to switch from pollutive, peaking sources of energy to clean, renewable ones. Solar power emits no greenhouse gases, no carbon dioxide and, when distributed, can provide power at or near the point of use without turning our cities into smog factories. That alone is reason enough to subsidize solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable resources until they reach the Holy Grail that is their destiny.