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Equity Perspectives

With a growing number of utilities and consumers joining large corporations in embracing solar energy, the potential for long-term growth remains bright.

 

In Brief

▪ According to a report for the National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) by the University of Cambridge and PriceWaterhouseCoopers,1 in 2014 alone, $150 billion was invested in solar generation globally, thanks to continuing reductions in technology costs, rising demand for electricity in developing countries, and a significant drive by governments to switch to less carbon-intensive generation sources to respond to climate concerns.

▪ Solar energy is all set to be at grid parity2 in 80% of the world’s countries in the next two years, the NBAD report added.

▪ In the United States, nearly 600,000 homes and businesses went solar by the end of 2014.

▪ Even the Persian Gulf region, long known for its oil and gas production, is investing steadily in solar energy, given the increasing competitiveness of photovoltaic technologies.3

 

You know solar energy has become a hot investment theme when heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune and Saudi Arabia (albeit for different reasons) embrace it as an alternative to the oil and gas that made them rich over many decades.

Last September, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (which includes descendants of the oil empire that eventually became ExxonMobil) joined an institutional campaign that will withdraw a total of $50 billion from fossil fuels.   

While there is considerable controversy about the fiduciary implications of divesting from oil and gas companies—one of the better performing sectors long term—the Rockefeller heirs were undeterred.  

“John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, moved America out of whale oil and into petroleum,” said Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, in a statement. “We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy [such as solar].”4

A few weeks later, Hamed al-Saggaf, executive director of the Saudi Electricity Company, told industry leaders that solar power is key to meeting Saudi Arabia’s future electricity production. "If we continue to consume fuel at the same rate, then there will be a great lost opportunity," Saggaf said. "We have to start pursuing solar now."5

Saggaf’s message resonated in Saudi Arabia. For one thing, the desert kingdom has vast tracts along the equator where solar farms can be built; for another, solar energy can free up oil and gas supplies for export. 

Small wonder, then, that solar power market in Saudi Arabia is projected to witness phenomenal growth over the next five years using both photovoltaic6 technology and concentrated solar power (CSP) technology,7 according to TechSci Research. 

Shedding Light on Growth Rivers
For all its progress in recent years, solar energy still supplies a very small percentage of the world’s energy. In the United States, it also lags renewable energy sources, such as hydropower, wind, and wood biomass (see Chart 1). But with more and more locations around the world achieving grid parity,8 or better (see Chart 2), demand is booming, which has led to significant gains in solar stocks.   

“Following a boom and bust cycle that transpired between 2006 and 2011, the solar energy industry has undergone a dramatic consolidation and lowering of production costs, and those two trends have allowed solar producers to realize higher prices and profits,” said F. Thomas O’Halloran, Lord Abbett Partner & Portfolio Manager. (All of which helps explain why some of the most innovative companies in this space have been part of the Lord Abbett Growth Leaders Fund.)

According to the Solar Energy Information Association (SEIA), the United States installed 6,201 megawatts9 of direct current (MWdc) of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity in 2014, up 30% over 2013 (see Chart 2), making 2014 the largest year ever in terms of PV installations, and growth in 2015 could be even higher. 

Growth remains driven primarily by the utility solar PV market (see Chart 3), but this year, the most rapid growth could come in the residential market, say industry forecasters, and not just in sunny states such as California, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida. 

By the end of 2014, 20 states eclipsed the 100 MWdc mark for cumulative operating solar PV installations, and for the first time ever, more than half a gigawatt10 of residential solar installations came online without any state incentive in 2014, the SEIA said.  

In 2015, however, rate structure revisions could threaten growth. As a recent report11 by Wood McKenzie put it, “Home solar has been a consistent growth story over the past three years, posting annual growth rates over 50% in 2012, 2013, and 2014. But there are more than 20 ongoing proceedings that could affect residential solar’s value proposition through either changes to net energy metering or electricity rate structures, most notably in California.”12

 

Chart 1. Solar’s Share of U.S. Renewable Energy Supply Is Still Small, but Growing Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

 

Chart 2. Solar Power Is Now Commercially Viable in Most Major Economies
Key countries with grid paritySource: Deutsche Bank estimates.  Data as of April 21, 2015

 

Chart 3. Utility-Scale Installations Have Accounted for Most of Solar’s Growth
Annual U.S. solar photovoltaic installations, 2000–14


Source: GTM Research/SEIA: U.S. Solar Market Insight®.

 

Global Warming to Solar  
According to a report for the National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) by the University of Cambridge and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, around $150 billion was invested globally in solar energy generation in 2014, and solar energy is poised to achieve grid parity in 80% of the world’s countries in the next two years.12

The most dramatic move into solar has occurred in Japan, where 43 nuclear reactors have been shut down since the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Since then, renewable energy capacity in Japan has tripled to 25GW, of which more than 80% is solar, according to the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation. (JREF).13

“Solar has come of age in Japan and from now on will be replacing imported uranium and fossil fuels,” said Tomas Kaberger, JREF executive board chairman. 

Even countries along the Persian Gulf have come to the realization that solar needs to be part of their energy mix, given rising demand and the fact that photovoltaic technologies can be competitive with cheap oil and gas. 

Demand in the Middle East and North Africa region, which extends from Morocco to Iran, is expected to grow by 8.3% per year through 2019—more than three times the global average, and more than 170 gigawatts of additional capacity will be required in the gulf region14 alone by 2020, the report said. 

“As government and utilities are driven to bring new generation capacity on stream, this new reality [solar energy] presents a significant opportunity to make savings, reduce fuel cost risks, achieve climate ambitions, and, at the same time, keep more oil and gas available for export,” the NBAD report said.15

Is Solar the Next Shale?
Like the shale revolution, today’s solar boom is technology driven. And continued innovation in solar could affect the energy market as dramatically as shale gas has, according to a recent report by Wood Mackenzie. 

“The economics of solar is already competitive in many parts of the United States, and that will only get better,” said Prajit Ghosh, research director at Wood Mackenzie. 

“With module costs as low as they can go, increasing efficiencies has become the next frontier, as it is the best way to reduce balance of system or labor costs, as you need less panels to produce the same output,” the Wood MacKenzie report added. 

Even so, what consumers pay to install solar systems may vary widely from state to state because some residential solar installers inflate their margins when they perceive a customer will value a solar system for more than its intrinsic value. For example, California, one of the most mature solar markets in the United States, has some of the highest installed solar prices in the nation. But Texas, a far less mature market than California, has some of the lowest installed prices in the nation.16

New Materials on the Horizon
According to Wood Mackenzie, new photovoltaic materials like perovskite, creative applications of photovoltaics in building material, windows, and even paint are some of the technologies that could have an impact. While these technologies are nowhere near commercial availability at the moment, Stanford scientists last year found that putting a film of perovskite on top of a silicon solar cell increases the cell's efficiency nearly 50%, say Stanford scientists.17

At this point, however, the crystalline nature of perovskite has stability issues, and unless this stability problem can be solved, perovskite devices may never become a viable alternative to silicon solar cells.  

“All the exciting efficiencies and any energy claims that are associated with [perovskite solar cells] should be taken with a grain of salt,” said Keith Emery, the manager of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s photovoltaic cell and module performance characterization group in the United States.18

Outlook
While the outlook for small-scale distributed solar generation looks promising, Deutsche Bank analysts remain equally optimistic over the prospects of commercial and utility-scale solar markets.

Utility-scale solar demand is set to accelerate in both the United States and emerging markets due to a combination of supportive policies and ongoing solar electricity cost reduction, a recent Deutsche Bank report said. And analysts there are particularly optimistic over growth prospects in China, India, Middle East, South Africa, and South America.19

Much may depend on improving the cost of energy storage (as in breakthrough battery technology) and transforming the electricity distribution network into more of a "smart grid" that allows solar customers to sell back extra energy to their providers during periods of peak demand. Significant progress on these fronts could significantly accelerate global solar penetration, particularly in high-use electricity markets such as Europe.

Of course, policy uncertainty could affect investor sentiment and overall supply/demand fundamentals. But some analysts believe the dependence on subsidies has decreased significantly compared with a few years ago (and will continue to do so) and demand drivers are also increasingly more diverse as well as sustainable.20  

 

1 "Financing the Future of Energy: The Opportunity for the Gulf’s Financial Services Sector," a report for the National Bank of Abu Dhabi by the University of Cambridge and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, March 2015.
2 "Grid parity" occurs when a renewable energy source like solar power or wind power can generate electricity at a levelized cost that is less than or equal to the price of purchasing power from the electricity grid.
3 "Saudi Arabia Solar Power Market Forecast & Opportunities, 2020," TechSci Research, April 2015.
4 Suzanne Goldenberg, "Heirs to Rockefeller Oil Fortune Divest from Fossil Fuels Over Climate Change," The Guardian, September 22, 2014.
5 "Solar Power Key for Saudi Future, Says Energy Chief," PV Magazine, October 28, 2014
6 Solar power uses photovoltaic (PV) cells to convert sunlight directly into electricity. When sunlight strikes a PV cell, electrons are dislodged, creating an electrical current.
7 Concentrating solar power (CSP) is a utility-scale renewable energy option for generating electricity that is receiving considerable attention in the southwestern United States and other sunbelts worldwide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Although many people think of photovoltaic cells when thinking about solar power, CSP technologies that concentrate sunlight to create heat that can be used to generate electricity are also becoming more popular, the EIA says.
8 Mike Corones, “Solar Energy Enjoys a Glowing Outlook,” Reuters, May 4, 2015.
9 Megawatt (MW) equals one million watts.
10 Gigawatt (GW) equals one billion watts.
11 "Solar: The Next Shale?" press release and presentation, Wood Mackenzie, February 2, 2015.
12 According to Benzinga.com, California's Assembly Bill 327 mandates that the state’s three investor-owned utilities take distributable energy resources (DERs) into account when spending money for planning and construction of grid investments. It is far more complicated to build and maintain a grid designed for two-way electricity flows and the capacity to network with many more nodes than a traditional one-way transmission model.
13 Micheal Kaufman, “Japan Looks to Solar Energy to Power Its Future,” Bidnessetc.com, April 27, 2015.
14 The   Gulf Cooperation Council is a regional intergovernmental political and economic union consisting of all Arab states of the Persian Gulf—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates— except for Iraq.  
15 Gaurav Agnihotri, "Is Solar Energy Ready to Compete with Oil and Other Fossil Fuels?" oilprice.com, May 4, 2015.
16 Herman K. Trabish, "The Next Shale: How Solar Is Poised to Transform America's Energy Markets," UtilityDive, February 19, 2015.
17 Mark Shwartz, "Perovskites Provide Big Boost to Silicon Solar Cells, Stanford Study Finds," Stanford.edu, January 19, 2015.
18 Matthew Gunther, "Meteoritic Rise of Perovskite Solar Cells Under Scrutiny Over Efficiencies," Chemistry World, Royal Society of Chemistry, March 2, 2015.
19 Vishal Shah, "Crossing the Chasm: Solar Grid Parity in a Low Oil Price Era," Deutsche Bank Markets Research, February 27, 2015.
20 Ibid.

 

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Market forecasts and projections are based on current market conditions and are subject to change without notice. Projections should not be considered a guarantee.

The charts shown are for illustrative purposes only and do not reflect any specific Lord Abbett mutual fund or any particular investment. 

Statements concerning financial market trends are based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate. There is no guarantee that markets will perform in a similar manner under similar conditions in the future. 

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