Like most of the US solar industry, I have been watching for the tipping point in silicon photovoltaic panel installation and energy costs since the early 2000s.
It's long been-promised by proponents of renewable energy, so I was a bit skeptical in December when it was again predicted to cause a disruption taking market share away from coal and other traditional energy providers in the US market and cause mass adoption of solar as a home heating/cooling and electricity technology.
I also don't immediately buy into the ability of the EPA Clean Power Plan to convert those millions of consumers to home-based solar generation purely based on changes in law that mainly effect producers and not consumers of energy.
Classic 'Solar Tipping Points'
Some great moments in the solar tipping point so far:
- In 2012 ThinkProgress gave us three handy charts which showed why solar "has hit a tipping point."
- In 2011 the tipping point supposedly happened for 3rd party residential panel ownership in California, the largest adopter market state... and that did nothing for material costs or even made a speed bump in demand for the dirtier technologies.
- Even back in 2005, silicon crystalline solar photovoltaic panel technology "hit a tipping point" to supposedly make solar a much more viable energy generation technology. 10 years ago. Yet the demand for materials has still not risen much ever since we began tracking prices in 2012.
The monthly renewables MMI® registered a value of 60 in May, a decrease of 1.6% from 61 in April. The decrease is on par with the generally flat "terse investor frown" trend the index has tracked since its inception so, while it's not disconcerting, it doesn't give great hope for prices of raw materials for silicon panels or wind turbines to rise in the short term, either.
No Increased Demand for Raw Materials
A lot of the metal inputs of these technologies are suffering their own price problems due to market gluts that have nothing to do with solar or wind adoption, particularly steel plate.
The most promising development for solar generation is that it's now cheaper than gas in 47 states, but there's no evidence that that will spur on solar adoption in a place like, say, Minnesota where it's dark much of the day and snowmelt will ruin your roof-mounted panels every winter.
Silicon, itself, is rising in both demand and price as semiconductor and energy use is definitely on the upswing in mature markets. The adoption problem continues to be the scale of the industry. Powering California, Texas, the rest of the West and Florida will not deliver the amount of panels on roofs needed for consistent power generation for utilities and grid owners to divest in backup generation technology. It also won't deliver the amount of homes and commercial businesses generating electricity necessary to push raw material prices up significantly.
Paypal, SpaceX, Cars, Why Not the Solar Tipping Point?
Enter Elon Musk, sensing a business opportunity, and this month's announcement from Tesla Motors that it's expanding its li-ion battery business to homes and commercial properties interested in using a modified version of the automaker's batteries to store solar power generated during the day for their homes' use at night. Hey guys, another tipping point!
It's true that Tesla's advance is economical, necessary and fills a major need in the market: the ability to store energy collected from the panels at night in places where daylight doesn't extend beyond 8 PM. It could also resolve the orientation battle now being waged in California between utilities and homeowners by taking a decision on where stored power goes out of utilities' hands.
Actual Renewable Materials Prices
Still, as we are cautious about the markets we cover, I will wait to see if Tesla's battery business takes off and provides a boost for silicon solar demand. We've been promised a tipping point before. Now, how about that SpaceX IPO, Elon?