In this interview, GTM Research Solar Analyst Cory Honeyman provides some background on the U.S. Solar Market Insight Report and discusses trends in residential and commercial solar, including hard costs, important skills for salespeople, state incentives, common misconceptions, and financing. (The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Tom McCormack (TM): Can you give some background on the U.S. Solar Market Insight Report?
Cory Honeyman (CH): The U.S. Solar Market Insight Report is a publication that we release with the Solar Energies Industry Association (SEIA) on a quarterly basis. The key takeaways from the report are a combination of understand installations across each state and market segment, our outlook on future installations, our forecast, by state and market segment on future installations through 2017. Within that, we break apart and identify the leading states and provide qualitative background on the key drivers and challenges to growth that are fueling or hampering installations across the top 10, and some of the newer state markets that are just beginning to hit the national radar. We also cover installation pricing trends, manufacturing and component pricing trends, and, finally, a breakdown of both PV and concentrating solar trends.
TM: What is the methodology for the report?
CH: The quantitative data comes from an extensive data collection effort that I take the lead on. We reach out to 60-80 sources, including utilities, incentive program administrators, and government program administrators, who provide figures on new installation capacity across the major market segments. One key element that sets this report apart from other reports that are tracking growth in the solar industry is the fact that I think we have the most robust coverage of actual utility interconnection data. We also conduct an extensive array of channel checks where we have discussions with people across the downstream value chain for solar about the major drivers of growth in the states where we’re seeing upticks in a given quarter.
TM: What is driving the increase in residential installations?
CH: Customer acceptance and the interest in going solar in the major state markets, especially in California, is increasing every year. When you see three of your neighbors go solar, it inevitably makes you want to go solar, too. Outside of the increased social acceptance, the economics for installing solar on the residential side have become increasingly attractive. The cost to install has gone down, but it’s also been driven by the introduction of a lot more innovative and attractive third-party financing options that have really scaled up growth. The entrance of companies like SolarCity that can enable homeowners to avoid a lot of the upfront costs of installing solar is driving a lot of the growth in the established state markets. We see, on the residential side, in most major markets, that third-party ownership accounts for two thirds to 85 percent of the market each quarter.
TM: What is making solar cheaper?
CH: On the upstream side, we’re seeing declining prices across both components and polysilicon. Combined with that is the fact that we’ve seen increased electricity retail rates for customers. Those two things together increase the value proposition for customers to go solar. Also, in many of the established state markets installers have fine-tuned their internal operational efficiencies, cutting down on a lot of soft costs and have also even focused on customer acquisition.
TM: Do the current solar trends suggest any new careers or skills that will be more in demand in the coming years?
CH: Our partner SEIA recently released a report on the number of jobs that have been created within the solar industry, and that goes into the types of jobs the industry attracts and how that has evolved over time. As we’ve seen really impressive and continued growth across the entire market, obviously that requires a ramp-up in sales capacities. So, if you go on LinkedIn and type in “solar,” all of the leading companies have positions open for outside and inside sales consultants, and I think that is an area where there will be constant demand. Although it’s becoming increasingly heterogeneous, the U.S. market is still concentrated in the hands of a few state markets. However, the dynamics within those states is changing, so I think there’s a need for more and more roles that involve a strong understanding of where the market is heading both geographically as well as in terms of financing trends and other major trends that can lead to increased acquisition of customers.
TM: What types of skills would make a prospective solar employee marketable today?
CH: It’s a different conversation depending on whether you’re pitching to a residential or a commercial customer. The requirements for commercial are more technical and focused on the financial returns whereas with residential, you really just need to shore up what your elevator pitch is when you’re reaching out to potential customers. Regardless of what the customer acquisition strategies are for a given company, if you’re in a sales position, a lot of that is going to be external-facing and either on the phone or face-to-face work. So, it’s important to understand financing options and be able to explain the key metrics that homeowners care about. So, what is the payback period? Or, what is the discount I can expect based on what I am currently paying for my electricity bill?
TM: What do you consider to be an overlooked or not-well-understood element of the current solar market?
CH: I think one of the prevailing notions about installing solar is that you need to have incentives to make it work, and I think we expect any project to take advantage of the federal-level incentives, which means the federal investment tax credit along with another incentive or accelerated depreciation. That will continue to be the primary driver of growth for the next couple of years. When a lot of people think about the economics of solar working out, it has to go hand-in-hand with the availability of really strong state incentive programs. That does fuel a lot of growth across many smaller and middle-tier state markets. But we’re really beginning to see a number of the leading states, that account for 80 percent of the market begin to shift away from needing any state incentives to make projects work. Last quarter was a hallmark moment for California, where over half of all the residential installations that came online actually came online without any state incentives. The trend is getting closer to this notion of retail rate parity, where a project can work with only the federal-level incentives. The misconception that you need incentives to make projects work is an important one because if you’re interested in making sales pitches and becoming an attractive candidate for jobs, being able to talk confidently about where the industry is heading and how it’s becoming increasingly independent of these state-level incentives is important.
TM: What are the main drivers of solar growth? Is it the political landscape of the state, the incentives in the state, or simply the availability of solar based on state geography?
CH: I think they all work together and are weighted differently depending on the state. The underlying market fundamentals that need to be there are: “What are the current retail electricity rates in a particular state?” and “What are the solar resources for that state?” When you have those two questions factored in, the role of incentives plays an important role, but when you think about the roles governments and utilities play in helping to promote solar growth, I think it really varies. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s probably surprising to hear that, in a number of states where you wouldn’t expect to see meaningful investment in solar, it’s actually taking place. Yes, California has and will continue to be the #1 state market for solar, but recently, for example, within the utility-scale market segment, North Carolina is the #2 state right now. Also, even farther south, Georgia, and specifically the utility Georgia Power, has made significant efforts an investment to begin ramping up solar development within its territory.
TM: Can you explain why that’s surprising? Is it because we’d expect redder states to be more reluctant to embrace the technology, or is it a different reason?
CG: I don’t think it’s surprising. The value of going solar is not driven solely by altruism and doing right. That’s an important piece to the puzzle, but the economics are structured in a way that, both for utilities and end users, there are strong cases to be made for integrating solar into the mix. So in Georgia, Colorado, and even Minnesota, the value of adding solar not for compliance reasons, but, for example, as a hedge against natural gas prices inevitably rising again. For customers in states where the incentive landscape isn’t as strong, and as project economics become increasingly attractive, the value of avoiding energy costs altogether is something that I don’t think people always factor in to the evaluation of what role solar can actually play across the U.S.
TM: What are the factors that impact how a utility company participates in the market? You mentioned that it’s a hedge against the price of other energy sources.
CH: That’s a second-order driver at this point. The #1 factor has been that states have set renewable portfolio standards (RPS), and a lot of those have solar carve-outs where the utilities are required to procure a certain amount of solar to meet annual compliance obligations. Those pieces of legislation have launched a number of procurement programs and incentive programs across all market segments. There are a number of states where those RPS are set. The most recent one was established in Minnesota.
TM: So, if there’s new legislation in a state, that’s going to be a major driver, forcing the utilities to get on board whether they like the idea or not?
CH: The prospects for new RPS legislation are going to be few and far between. There are a few states where we’ve seen an extension or revision of these standards, but a lot of the standards have been set over the past few years, going back as early as the mid-2000s, so that legislation is not something that will create new demand. It will just sustain demand that’s been set into place over the past several years.
TM: What types of new commercial projects are we seeing on the horizon?
CH: On the commercial side, the market saw a downturn in 2013 and kind of flat-lined. I think the market has shifted toward smaller-scale commercial systems, sub 100 kilowatt. In the past, especially in New Jersey, which was, for a while, the leading driver of growth in the commercial market, you saw a ton of 5 to 10 megawatt, ground-mount systems that were driving a lot of growth there. And, that market fall apart for a bit because its primary driver is SRECs, and the demand for SRECs dropped once there was too much investment in that market. Looking forward, I don’t think you’re going to necessarily see a shift in the types of projects; it’s more about the way in which that market can become reinvigorated. A lot of it has to do with mirroring what has happen recently on the residential side: figuring out ways to unlock capital to start developing projects again. On the residential side, we’ve seen really innovative platforms for linking investors with developers and linking third-party ownership agreements with customers. Coming up with innovative online platforms to facilitate and then unlock investment for commercial customers is a really important strategy that’s been employed on the residential side. Revising the financing structures that are currently in place in commercial markets is a really important trend to keep in mind. But there’s isn’t one specific type of project we can expect to see. It really depends on the state market. In Massachusetts, which is well on its way to being the #2 commercial market, looking at 2014, that market still sees a number of 1 to 5 megawatt, ground-mount systems. So, it depends on which state you’re in, what incentives are in place, and what those incentives are targeting.
TM: If there was something I needed to learn or familiarize myself with, when you’re talking about the more innovative financing for commercial solar, is that just a matter of getting comfortable with the all the different options that are out there, or creatively bringing investors to the table, or exploring new crowdsourcing options? What would I want to key in on to be on the cutting edge of that change as it happens?
CH: That’s one of the million-dollar questions for 2014 with commercial solar. There are a few companies that are beginning to introduce innovative financing structures. There was an announcement from Wiser Capital that they’re introducing a platform for scaling up commercial solar. Topics you’d really want to understand are how a power purchase agreement (PPA) is structured and expected returns and requirements from different types of nonresidential customers. “Commercial” is often used interchangeably with “nonresidential,” but a lot of the developers who are developing commercial projects are also developing projects for municipal, government, and non-profit entities, too. So, it’s important to recognize that the types of financing available for school projects, for example, are different than what you can secure for a commercial customer. And, I think there are trade-offs and benefits to both types of projects, but really understanding what types of debt instruments you can take advantage of with school and government projects, it’s perhaps a little more niche, but some of those opportunities are really important to leverage. Good case studies to reference are a number of school projects that have been developed in California and Arizona where they have PPA documents available to the public that you can review.
We plan to do an interview like this one each quarter to stay on top of quickly-evolving trends in the solar industry. What topics would you like to see covered?
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