Renewables MMI Falls Again, Investments Taking Off Despite Bearish Prices

The renewables MMI fell 1.9% to yet another all-time low of 52 this month. The index has fallen in price steadily with very few exceptions since we started charting renewables prices in 2012.


The bearish commodity environment is certainly one part of the story but, as we’ve written before, the market performance of renewable metal inputs such as neodymium and grain-oriented electrical steel (GOES) are only part of the story for the market since, in a commodity sense, it’s still in its infancy.

Strong Investor Interest

While prices fell this month we noted some interesting acquisitions such as Chinese venture capitalist Sonny Wu purchasing 80% of Philips’ LumiLEDs business. LumiLEDs is one of the largest producers of light-emitting diode (LED) commercial lighting, a semiconductor technology that uses rare earth phosphors and other renewables to light your home for less energy.

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Investment in renewables is strong according to the UNEP Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2015 report. China saw, by far, the biggest renewable energy investments in 2014 — a record $83.3 billion, up 39% from 2013. The US was second at $38.3 billion, up 7% on the year but well below its all-time high reached in 2011. Third came Japan, at $35.7 billion, 10% higher than in 2013 and its biggest total ever.

The numbers for 2015 will be out soon and most are predicting gains over last year as companies such as Tesla and SolarCity started construction of factories estimated to cost more than $1 billion  — Tesla’s is actually estimated to cost $5 billion — this year.

Investors are clearly in the renewables game for the long run, as many expect a switch from coal-fired electricity production in China and the US to take off in the next 10 years. Liquid natural gas has already begun to replace it — according to my colleague, Stuart Burns the UK is even more rapidly phasing out coal in favor of LNG —and technology improvements in solar and wind are expected to make them competitive with LNG in the near future.

Consumer Demand

Can these investments speed up adoption and increase the price of parts such as motors made of neodymium magnets? It really depends on how quickly consumers accept SolarCity and Tesla’s products. Tesla’s already selling its Powerwall lithium ion batteries for home solar energy storage.

Alternative applications of solar silicon are also popping up seemingly every day, at least in the warmer parts of the US. As gadgets such as cell phones and tablets take over more and more of our work and home lives, its hard to imagine their thirst for power being slaked entirely by wall-mounted plugs fed by coal or LNG-burning plants.

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The market for these specialty metals likely won’t turn around sharply, especially not in this bearish commodity environment,  but the continued investment and underlying consumer demands shows the future potential for renewables.

Renewables Prices

Chinese neodymium saw a big drop this month as it fell from $49,857.55 a metric ton in November to $49,237.98 per mt this month, a plunge of 1.2%. Chinese silicon fell from $2,018.04 per mt in November to $1,891.36 per mt this month, a staggering drop of 6.3%. Chinese cobalt cathodes cost $32,825.32 this month, down from $33,713.20 in November, a fall of 2.63%.

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