Author Archives: Richard Asplund

Solar stocks extend this year’s rally; Chinese solar growth surges; Utility solar costs are now comparable to natural gas and have fallen below coal and nuclear; Trump administration’s Section 201 trade remedy decision is due by January – Dec 2017
 

Read report in PDF with graphs: MAC-Solar-Sector-Update-Dec-2017

Solar Index Performance

The MAC Solar Index, the tracking index for the Guggenheim Solar ETF (NYSE ARCA: TAN), has rallied sharply since May and is up +45% year-to-date.

Recent bullish factors for solar stocks include (1) a surge in Chinese solar installs in 2017 and broadening solar strength coming from India, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia (see page 5 for the world solar growth outlook), (2) stronger demand for solar power due to the increasingly competitive price of solar versus alternatives as countries seek to meet their carbon-reduction targets under the Paris COP21 global climate agreement, and (3) continued low valuation levels that indicate that solar stocks are conservatively priced even after the recent rally.

Bearish factors for solar stocks include (1) uncertainty about whether the Republicans’ U.S. tax reform plan will hurt the availability of tax equity financing for the U.S. solar industry, (2) uncertainty about whether the Trump administration in January will impose U.S. import tariffs on solar cells and panels as a remedy for Suniva’s Section 201 trade complaint, (3) continued downward pressure on solar pricing caused by ample global production capacity, (4) uncertainty about the strength of global climate policy after the Trump administration earlier this year withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, and (5) ongoing solar trade disputes that have resulted in tariffs and various market dislocations.

Solar stocks are still trading at low valuation levels compared with the broad market even after the recent rally in solar stocks. The median forward P/E of companies in the MAC Solar Index is currently 13.9, which is well below the forward P/E of 19.8 for the S&P 500 index. In addition, the median price-to-book ratio of 1.30 for the companies in the MAC Solar Index is well below the 3.27 ratio for the S&P 500. The median price-to-sales ratio of 1.55 for the MAC Solar Index is well below the 2.22 ratio for the S&P 500.

Solar stocks see a sharp recovery rally

Solar stocks have rallied sharply since May on signs of improved solar industry fundamentals and reduced concerns about Trump administration policies. The oversupply of panels that plagued the market in late 2016 has eased and company profit fundamentals are improving. In addition, the market was very encouraged to see a surge of about +45% in Chinese solar demand installs in 2017.

Solar stocks have also been boosted by the stabilization of solar cell and panel prices, which has helped company profit results. Part of the reason for the recovery in U.S. solar panel prices, however, is stockpiling and strong demand ahead of a decision in January on Suniva’s trade complaint, which could result in tariffs or import curbs (see discussion on page 2).

Regarding U.S. politics, the solar market has already absorbed the negative moves that President Trump took earlier this year, including his intention to exit the Paris climate agreement and to rescind the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. There was relief, however, that the Trump administration did not go so far as to pull the U.S. out of the entire UN climate treaty framework nor to rescind the EPA’s legal obligation to regulate CO2 emissions.

Chinese PV growth surges

Forecasts for 2017 global solar installs have risen substantially because of a surge in Chinese installs. The China PV Industry Association (CPIA) reported that Chinese PV installs in the first half of 2017 were stronger than expected at 24.4 GW, up +19% year-on-year. The unexpected strength is mainly coming from distributed solar as opposed to utility solar.

CPIA said that Chinese solar installs for 2017 will likely reach 50 GW, which would be up by a blistering +45% from the 2016 install amount of 34.5 GW. In response to the first-half strength, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) raised its 2017 Chinese solar forecast to 54 GW from its July forecast of 30 GW. IHS Markit is forecasting 45 GW of Chinese solar installs in 2017.

In July, China met the government’s 13th Five-Year-Plan (2016-2020) target for cumulative solar installations of 105 GW. As a result, the government raised its target to 150 GW. However, total Chinese installs are likely to be significantly higher than the target since the target does not include rooftop solar, which is booming.

Utility solar costs are now comparable to natural gas and have fallen below coal and nuclear

The levelized-cost-of-energy (LCOE) for utility-scale solar PV has dropped by -86% over the last eight years, by -36% over the last four years, and by -9% in 2017, according to Lazard’s latest LCOE report (link). Lazard’s report is the most comprehensive LCOE analysis available for alternative and conventional energy sources.

The latest Lazard report found that unsubsidized utility solar PV costs now have fallen by so much that solar is now competitive with new natural gas plants and is cheaper than new coal or nuclear plants.

Specifically, Lazard pegs the unsubsidized utility solar LCOE cost of 4.6-5.3 cents per kWh as comparable to the 4.2-7.8 cent cost of natural gas (combined cycle) and lower than cost of 6.0-14.3 cents for coal and 11.2-18.3 cents for nuclear.

U.S. is now the lone holdout from the Paris climate agreement

The U.S. is now the only country in the world that has refused to abide by the Paris COP 21 global climate accord. The only other holdouts, Syria and Nicaragua, recently acceded to the agreement. Nicaragua signed the Paris climate agreement in October and Syria in November announced its intention to sign the agreement.

The rest of the world is continuing with the Paris climate agreement without the United States. China and Europe have flatly rejected the Trump administration’s request for a renegotiation of the agreement. It makes little sense to renegotiate the agreement since the emission reduction targets are voluntary, which means that any country including the U.S. can simply change their goals if they wish.

Even though President Trump on June 1 announced that the U.S. plans to leave the Paris climate agreement, the U.S. exit will not actually occur until the end of President Trump’s term. The Paris agreement is binding on the U.S. for the next three years and then requires a 1-year notice to withdraw. The earliest date for a U.S. exit is November 4, 2020, one day after the next presidential election. At any time during that period, the U.S. could drop the exit process and recommit to the Paris agreement. The U.S. could also recommit to the agreement at any time in the future if desired by a new president.

The Obama administration originally signed the Paris climate agreement with a voluntary goal of reducing U.S. carbon emissions by 17% by 2020, by 26%-28% by 2025, and an intent to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. Most climate experts believe the Paris agreement was not tough enough in the first place to meet its goal of limiting global warning to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels.

Trump administration’s Section 201 trade remedy decision is due by January

The U.S. solar industry is on edge as it waits for the Trump administration’s decision on the remedy, if any, to the decision by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) that U.S. solar cell and panel manufacturers have been harmed by foreign competition.

The Section 201 solar trade case began in spring 2017 after two foreign-owned solar manufacturing companies based in the U.S., Suniva and Solarworld, pursued a Section 201 trade case with the ITC. The companies alleged that they had been driven into bankruptcy by foreign competition. Section 201 is a little-used U.S. trade complaint that was last used by the steel industry in 2001.

ITC commissioners on Sep 22 ruled by a vote of 4-0 that American solar manufacturers were in fact harmed by foreign competition. The ITC on Oct 31 then released its remedy recommendations, which were less severe than the markets had feared. The ITC recommended tariffs of 30-35% on imported cells and panels and a possible import quantity limit. The tariff recommendation was substantially weaker than Suniva’s request for an import duty of 40 cents per watt and a minimum price of 78 cents per watt. Suniva’s requested remedy would have more than doubled the cost of imported panels from the current price of about 32 cents per watt.

The Trump administration currently faces a deadline of January 26, 2018 to announce its decision on remedies, although that deadline could slip. The Trump administration is not bound by the ITC’s recommendations and is free to choose whatever remedy it wishes, or even decline to apply any remedy at all. The Trump administration has given no indication of what remedy it might choose.

If the Trump administration does impose tariffs under Section 201, there is a chance that those tariffs will eventually be struck down by the World Trade Organization (WTO). President Trump’s U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer recently asked the ITC to identify any “unforeseen developments” that might come from tariffs, such as the impact on the solar install industry or a challenge to the tariffs at the WTO.

Section 201 solar import tariffs would be negative overall for the U.S. solar industry, which is heavily dependent on imported solar panels to support the rapid installation of solar in the U.S. Indeed, U.S. factories manufactured fewer than 10% of the solar panels that were installed in the U.S. in 2016, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. In fact, U.S. installers in 2016 heavily relied on imported panels for more than 90% of their U.S. solar installs.

Any increase in the after-tariff price of imported panels would make U.S. solar projects less economical in the U.S. and would therefore hurt the U.S. solar install growth rate. GTM Research estimates that U.S. solar installs would be cut by -9% from what they would otherwise be if the Trump administration levies a tariff of 10 cents per watt, which would be close to the ITC’s recommendation of a 30-35% tariff.

The problem for the Trump administration is that any tariff on imported solar panels will likely result in a net reduction of U.S. solar jobs. Of the 260,000 solar jobs in the U.S., 85% are in installation and only 15% are in manufacturing, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA). Import tariffs might give a small boost to U.S. solar manufacturing jobs, but that small boost would be swamped by the number of jobs that could be lost in the solar install industry. For that reason, the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) strongly opposes any tariff or trade restrictions on imported cells and panels.

The Section 201 trade case has been a positive factor for First Solar (FSLR) because the ITC decision exempted thin-film manufacturers from any trade remedies or tariffs. The ITC decision also exempted manufacturers from Canada and Singapore. By contrast, the ITC decision was negative for Chinese and other global solar manufacturers because they could see a tariff slapped on the solar panels that they export to the U.S. The decision was also negative for U.S. companies that specialize in installing solar panels, such as SunRun (RUN) and Vivent (VSLR), since they would face higher prices for imported solar panels.

The Section 201 trade case has already hurt the U.S. solar install industry by pushing solar panel prices as high as 52 cents per watt since installers are hoarding what panels they can find. In addition, many solar projects have been delayed, waiting for the remedy decision and to see how solar pricing shakes out in 2018.

While the Section 201 trade case has been a negative factor for the U.S. solar industry, the industry will nevertheless survive what would be the latest example of governmental trade interference in the solar industry. A 30-35% tariff on imported panels would push up the price of imported solar panels to the 43-44 cent per watt area from the current 32 cent level, but many solar projects can still be economical at that level. In addition, installers would try to adapt to the tariff by buying domestically-produced panels or otherwise exempted panels. Moreover, some Chinese solar manufacturers are already talking about setting up solar panel factories in the U.S. to avoid the tariffs.

Regarding the impact of the Section 201 trade case on the global solar industry, it is worth remembering that the U.S. market in 2016 accounted for only 18% of global solar installs, according to BNEF. That means that a drop in U.S. installs from tariffs would have a limited effect on the overall global solar market. For example, if the U.S. solar installs suffered a -10% hit from Section 201 remedies, that would translate to a decline of only about -2% in worldwide installs (i.e., a -10% U.S. decline multiplied by the 18% U.S. market share).

Trump administration moves to rescind Clean Power Plan

The EPA on October 10 took formal steps to repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which was designed to cut CO2 emissions from U.S. power plants. That action, however, was in line with the Trump administration’s well-known intentions and had little stock market impact.

When President Trump was elected in November 2016, the markets were already aware that the CPP would not go into effect during the Trump administration’s watch. The CPP, in any case, was already bottled up with a legal challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court when Mr. Trump took office. There was a chance that the Supreme Court would have struck down the plan anyway as an overreach of regulatory authority even if Hillary Clinton had been elected as president.

Nevertheless, the loss of the CPP is a blow for U.S. efforts to reduce its carbon emissions. Without the CPP, the U.S. is unlikely to meet the Obama administration’s former goal under the Paris climate agreement of reducing U.S. carbon emissions by 17% by 2020, by 26-28% by 2025, and by 80% by 2050.

The EPA’s repeal of the CPP will be a long and torturous process since the repeal must go through the EPA’s regular rule-making procedures from scratch. The repeal is then likely to be challenged by environmental supporters in court. That whole process is likely to extend well past the end of the Trump administration’s first term. In the meantime, the CPP will not be implemented and will have no effect.

The good news for the solar industry is that the EPA is still under a legal requirement to regulate CO2. The EPA’s obligation to regulate CO2 emissions has already been litigated all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and would be extremely difficult to reverse. The Trump administration has already decided not to challenge President Obama’s 2009 CO2 endangerment finding, which established the legal structure by which the EPA is legally obligated to regulate CO2 emissions.

The EPA said it plans to issue a replacement rule for the CPP in order to meet its legal obligation to regulate CO2 emissions. The EPA has requested ideas from stakeholders about the content of a replacement rule. However, few believe that a significant CO2 emission reduction rule is likely to emerge during the Trump administration.

Republicans’ tax reform plan may have negative implications for tax equity financing

The Republicans have not yet finalized their tax reform plan, which means the implications of the plan for solar are not yet clear.

In a very positive development for solar, Republicans appear to be headed towards leaving intact the existing solar investment tax credit (ITC) provisions through 2021, which is an important support measure for the U.S. solar industry. The solar ITC is currently set at 30% through 2019 and is set to step down to 26% in 2020 and 22% in 2021.

The ITC in 2022 will expire entirely for direct-owned residential projects, but will permanently remain at 10% for utility PV projects, non-residential, and third-party-owned residential solar installations. The Republican tax bill, however, may end that permanent tax credit at some date in the future such as 2027. The elimination of the permanent tax credit would be mildly negative for the U.S. solar industry, but would only take effect far out into the future.

The solar industry’s main area of concern about the Republicans’ tax bill is the impact on tax equity, which is an important source for financing for solar projects. Tax equity accounted for about 21% of the $58.5 billion of U.S. renewable energy investment in 2016, according to BNEF.

Through tax equity, an investor can take passive partial ownership of a solar project to capture the tax benefits, which might not otherwise be available to the developer. Tax equity helps reduce the overall financing costs of a solar project.

The Republican tax bill aims to reduce the corporate tax rate to 20% from 35%, which by itself means that companies may allocate less capital to tax equity since they will be paying lower taxes. Moreover, there is major concern that tax equity could take a heavy hit depending on whether Republicans go through with ideas to impose a tough alternative minimum tax (AMT) on U.S. corporations and/or put what amounts to an AMT on U.S. affiliates of foreign corporations with a Base Erosion Anti-Abuse Tax (BEAT).

The effect of alternative minimum taxes is to reduce or eliminate the benefit of tax equity financing. The reduction of tax equity financing would mean that some solar projects would have higher overall financing costs, which would translate to less advantageous project economics.

See PDF for more commentary and graphs…

Solar stocks see a sharp recovery rally; World (ex-U.S.) continues with Paris agreement; Climate change warnings abound – Aug 2017
 

Read report in PDF with graphs: MAC-Solar-Sector-Update-Aug-2017

Solar Index Performance

The MAC Solar Index, the tracking index for the Guggenheim Solar ETF (NYSE ARCA: TAN), has rallied sharply since May and is up +30.0% year-to-date.

Recent bullish factors for solar stocks include (1) continued strong overall world demand for solar with particular new strength coming from India, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia (see page 4 for the world solar growth outlook), (2) stronger demand for solar power due to the increasingly competitive price of solar versus alternatives as countries seek to meet their carbon-reduction targets under the Paris COP21 global climate agreement, and (3) continued low valuation levels that indicate that solar stocks are conservatively priced even after the recent rally.

Bearish factors for solar stocks include (1) continued downward pressure on solar pricing and panel oversupply caused largely by a hangover from the solar install spikes seen in China and the U.S. in 2016, (2) uncertainty about U.S. clean energy policy and global climate change initiatives due to the new Trump administration, (3) uncertainty for the U.S. residential solar market amidst a shift to purchase/loans from leases and cutbacks in net metering in some states, and (4) ongoing solar trade disputes that have resulted in tariffs and various market dislocations.

Solar stocks are still trading at low valuation levels compared with the broad market even after the recent rally in solar stocks. The median forward P/E of companies in the MAC Solar Index is currently 15.3, which is well below the forward P/E of 19.0 for the S&P 500 index. In addition, the median price-to-book ratio of 1.18 for the companies in the MAC Solar Index is well below the 3.15 ratio for the S&P 500 and the median price-to-sales ratio of 1.63 for the MAC Solar Index is well below the 2.11 ratio for the S&P 500.

Solar stocks see a sharp recovery rally

Solar stocks have rallied sharply since May on signs of improved solar industry fundamentals and reduced concerns about Trump administration policies. The oversupply of panels that plagued the market over the last two years has eased and company profit fundamentals are improving. In addition, the market was encouraged to learn that Chinese solar demand remains very strong with 24 GW of solar installed in the first half, indicating that China should be able to easily exceed forecasts for full-year installs of 30 GW.

Solar stocks have also been boosted by the stabilization of solar cell and panel prices, which has helped company profit results. Part of the reason for the recovery in U.S. solar panel prices, however, is stockpiling and strong demand ahead of a decision later this year on Suniva’s trade complaint, which could result in import curbs or duties (see discussion on page 3).

Regarding U.S. politics, the solar market has already absorbed the negative moves that President Trump took earlier this year, which included exiting the Paris climate agreement and moving to rescind the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. There was relief, however, that the Trump administration did not go so far as to pull the U.S. out of the entire UN climate treaty nor did the administration try to rescind the EPA’s legal obligation to regulate CO2 emissions. The solar market has also been relieved that the Trump administration has not mentioned any desire to curb or repeal the solar investment tax credit that lasts through 2021.

Indeed, there was an indication that President Trump may be favorably disposed to solar in general since he has now suggested on several occasions that his Mexico border wall should include solar panels to help defray the wall’s cost.

World (ex-U.S.) continues with Paris agreement

President Trump on June 1 announced that the U.S. will leave the COP21 Paris climate agreement. That exit process will not be completed until the end of President Trump’s term since the Paris agreement is binding for the next three years and then requires a 1-year notice to withdraw. The earliest date for an exit is November 4, 2020, one day after the next presidential election. At any time during that 4-year period, the U.S. could drop the exit process and recommit to the Paris agreement if Mr. Trump should have a change of heart. A Post-ABC poll taken in early June showed that nearly 6 in 10 American citizens opposed Mr. Trump’s exit from the climate agreement.

There was some good news, however, in that President Trump did not take the more drastic action of withdrawing altogether from United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That treaty established the overall UN climate negotiation process and was unanimously adopted by the Senate in 1992 and signed into law by President H.W. Bush. The U.S. can withdraw from that treaty on one year’s notice. The U.S. therefore remains within the structure of UN climate negotiations even if it plans to relinquish its Paris commitments.

The White House on August 4 sent a formal notification letter to the UN of its intent to withdraw from the COP21 Paris climate agreement. However, the statement left open the option for the U.S. to “re-engage” on the accord at some point in the future if the U.S. can negotiate more favorable terms. The statement also said that the U.S. will continue to participate in UN climate discussions aimed at fleshing out the details of the Paris agreement in order to “protect U.S. interests and ensure all future policy options remain open to the administration.”

Under the Paris COP21 agreement, the U.S. agreed to meet a voluntary goal of reducing carbon emissions by 17% by 2020, by 26-28% by 2025, and an intent to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. There are 195 nations that agreed to the Paris climate agreement in the culmination of decades of climate negotiations. President Trump joined Syria and Nicaragua as the only nations in the world that are not part of the Paris agreement, and Nicaragua didn’t join the Paris agreement because of its view that the agreement is not tough enough.

The question now is whether the rest of the world will uphold their respective carbon emission reduction targets even though the U.S. has rejected its targets. German Chancellor Merkel, French President Macron, and Chinese President Xi Jinping all recommitted to the Paris agreement after Mr. Trump’s exit announcement.

Ms. Merkel said, “Since the withdrawal of the U.S. [from the Paris climate accord], we’re more determined than ever that this be a success. We can’t wait for the last man on Earth to be convinced by the scientific evidence for climate change.” The world’s strategy is to proceed with emission reduction as best as possible without the U.S. and hope that the next U.S. president will bring the U.S. back into the climate fold.

There appears to be no chance that the Paris agreement will be renegotiated, as Mr. Trump has suggested. First, there is no real point in renegotiating the agreement since individual nation targets are voluntary. Nations can already change their targets if they wish and there is no penalty if nations do not meet their targets. Second, European leaders have already made clear that renegotiation is out of the question and that the Paris climate agreement is “irreversible.”

Mr. Trump’s exit from the Paris climate agreement is clearly a major setback for the global effort to address climate change. Most climate experts believe the Paris agreement was not tough enough in the first place to meet its goal of limiting global warning to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels. Without the U.S. in the agreement, meeting that 2-degree goal is even less likely. Global warming is now likely to become an even bigger problem that will likely result in panicky reaction down the road as the world realizes it must dramatically slash carbon emissions in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Global warming of 2 degrees might seem minor, but the earth’s environment is very sensitive to changes in temperature. The last time the earth was 4 degrees warmer, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher, according to Peter Brannen in “The Ends of the World.” When the earth was 5 degrees warmer 252 million years ago due to greenhouse gas warming from the release of methane from the Arctic, 97% of all life on Earth was extinguished.

Climate change warnings abound

Just six weeks after President Trump announced the exit from the Paris agreement, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off from the Antarctica Larsen C ice shelf, one of the largest icebergs ever recorded. There isn’t enough data to scientifically conclude that the iceberg broke off directly because of global warming. In addition, the breakup of the Larsen C ice shelf will not raise sea levels because a floating ice shelf is already submerged in the water. However, the breakup of ice shelves can in fact raise ocean levels by allowing glaciers behind the ice shelves to speed up their descent into the ocean.

The breakup of the Larsen C ice shelf could be a sign of a bigger breakup of Western Antarctica, according to the “The Doomsday Glacier” by Jeff Goodell. Ohio State glaciologist John Mercer back in 1978 wrote a paper entitled “West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the CO2 Greenhouse Effect: A Threat of Disaster.” He postulated that the western Antarctic ice shelves were much less stable than anyone realized due to melting from underneath and that deglaciation of the West Antarctica would cause a 16-foot rise in sea levels. His said that the breakup of the Larsen ice shelves, which is occurring now, would be the first sign of impending disaster.

More generally on the topic of climate change, an article entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells went viral in July as the most dramatic warning yet of climate change. In an alarmist tone, the author lays out a series of events that could happen on earth absent aggressive action to curb carbon emissions.

In his introduction, the author says, “It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities that will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.” The author goes on to define a list of climate change effects that could include heat death, the end of food, climate plagues, perpetual war, permanent economic collapse, and poisoned oceans.

Trump administration shows hand on domestic clean energy policy

On the domestic front, the Trump administration has already taken its main action of moving towards rescinding the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which was designed to cut carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector. However, the good news was that the Trump administration left in place President Obama’s 2009 CO2 endangerment finding, which means that the legal structure remains in place whereby the EPA is legally obligated to regulate CO2 emissions. The EPA’s obligation to regulate CO2 emissions has already been litigated all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Trump administration still hasn’t mentioned any desire for Congress to repeal or curb the already-existing solar investment tax credit (ITC), which provides a 30% tax credit on solar installs. Congress in late 2015 extended the solar federal ITC for 5 years at 30% through 2019 with a step down to 26% in 2020 and 22% in 2021. The ITC in 2022 will expire entirely for direct-owned residential, but will remain at 10% indefinitely for utility PV projects, non-residential, and third-party-owned residential solar installations. The extension of the solar ITC was part of a bipartisan grand energy bargain in which the decades-old prohibition on exporting crude oil was dropped in return for extending alternative energy credits.

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry created a stir in mid-April when he ordered a 60-day study of the U.S. electric grid with the purpose of analyzing whether the increase in renewable electricity is accelerating the retirement of baseload coal and nuclear plants. Solar currently supplies about 1.6% of U.S. electricity and wind supplies about 6%.

There was concern that the Trump administration might be looking for an excuse to try to curb the amount of alternative energy on the grid. However, an early draft of the report that was leaked in mid-July concluded that the decline in baseload power has been caused by low natural gas prices and the flattening of customer peak demand, not by rising amounts of alternative energy on the grid. The final report has yet to be released, however, and it is possible that the report’s conclusions will be revised.

Suniva case raises worries about U.S. solar trade sanctions

Suniva, a bankrupt solar manufacturing company located in the U.S. but owned by a Chinese company, filed a Section 201 trade complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission claiming that low-cost solar panels made mainly in China severely damaged its business. The ITC is scheduled to issue a decision by September 22, 2017, about whether U.S. solar manufacturers have been “seriously injured” by solar panel imports.

If the ITC does find evidence of serious injury, it can recommend various remedies for President Trump to take such as a blanket halt to imports or large duties on solar cells and panels. That could seriously damage the U.S. solar installation sector since U.S. installers use mostly imported solar panels. The U.S. solar manufacturing industry is relatively small and can supply only about 15% of the panels installed in the U.S., according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Any trade sanctions that push up the price of solar panels or restrict their access could severely damage U.S. solar installation companies. Indeed, the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), with over 1000 solar installers and manufacturers as members, expressed alarm about the trade complaint and said that any trade sanctions would “cause wide-scale economic hardships on thousands of American workers and their families.” SEIA said that as much as 260,000 jobs could be endangered by trade sanctions. SEIA said that bankrupt Suniva is not representative of other U.S. solar manufacturers and pointed out that no other U.S.-based solar manufacturers, except for bankrupt SolarWorld (owned by a German company), supported Suniva’s trade complaint.

The U.S. solar industry is hoping that the trade complaint will be denied. Any trade sanctions that are imposed to try to protect U.S. solar manufacturers will do more harm than good because there are many more solar jobs involved with installing solar panels in the U.S. than with manufacturing solar panels.

Global solar installs surge in 2016; Solar industry rolls on despite Trump administration; US 2016 solar jobs jump by another +24% – April 2017
 

Read report in PDF with graphs: MAC-Solar-Sector-Update-Apr-2017

Solar Index Performance

The MAC Solar Index, the tracking index for the Guggenheim Solar ETF (NYSE ARCA: TAN), has moved mildly higher so far this year and is up +4.0% year-to-date.

Recent bullish factors for solar stocks include (1) continued strong overall world demand for solar with particular new strength coming from India, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia (see page 4 for the world solar growth outlook), (2) stronger demand for solar power due to the increasingly competitive price of solar versus alternatives as countries seek to meet their carbon-reduction targets under the Paris COP21 global climate agreement, and (3) low valuation levels that indicate that solar stocks are very conservatively priced.

Bearish factors for solar stocks include (1) downward pressure on solar pricing and panel oversupply caused largely by a hangover from the solar install spikes seen in China and the U.S. in 2016, (2) uncertainty about U.S. clean energy policy and global climate change initiatives due to the new Trump administration, (3) uncertainty for the U.S. residential solar market amidst a shift to purchase/loans from leases and cutbacks in net metering in some states, and (4) ongoing solar trade disputes that have resulted in tariffs and various market dislocations.

Solar stocks are currently trading at very low valuation levels compared with the broad market. The median forward P/E of companies in the MAC Solar Index is currently 11.9, which is well below the forward P/E of 18.1 for the S&P 500 index. In addition, the median price-to-book ratio of 1.19 for the companies in the MAC Solar Index is well below the 3.04 ratio for the S&P 500 and the median price-to-sales ratio of 0.98 for the MAC Solar Index is well below the 2.05 ratio for the S&P 500.

Solar industry rolls on despite Trump administration

Solar panel company stocks continue to see general weakness mainly because of concern about panel oversupply and falling solar prices, which have pressured the profit margins of polysilicon, cell, and module producers. However, supply and demand is slowly rebalancing and most observers expect tighter supplies and more supportive pricing as 2017 wears on. Moreover, the decline in solar prices is boosting demand and is creating bullish opportunities for independent solar project developers as well as for the project-development units of the large integrated solar companies.

While the Trump administration has caused some policy anxiety for the solar industry, there has been no Trump effect on the ground thus far. Canadian Solar CEO Shawn Qu said in mid-March, for example, that President Trump’s energy policies have not had “any impact into either project development or the project sales process.” He said, “People are chasing solar deals like crazy.”

There are three main reasons why the Trump administration presents only a temporary obstacle for solar. The first reason is simply economics. Solar power has become dramatically cheaper in recent years and no longer needs the government support that it once needed. Solar in many areas of the world is now able to compete head-to-head with other sources of electricity generation.

For example, solar projects in the Arizona and Nevada deserts can be built for less than 4 cents per kWh versus the higher average lifetime cost for natural gas plants of 5.2 cents and 6.5 cents for coal, according to Bloomberg News. Most utility-scale solar power plants across the world now cost as little as 4-6 cents per kWh on an unsubsidized basis. Many utilities are starting to choose solar mainly because of its low cost, not for policy reasons. The world record low for solar at present is 2.42 cents/kWh at an auction in Abu Dhabi in September.

In the U.S., the unsubsidized levelized cost of utility solar is now 4.6-6.1 cents/kWh, which is roughly equal to the cost of natural gas of 4.8-7.8 cents, according to comprehensive analysis by Lazard’s “Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis – Version 10.0.”

“I don’t think politics are needed to support these [renewable energy] asset classes. They will do just fine because they are economically viable and they make sense,” according to Sachin Shah, head of Brookfield Asset Management’s renewable energy unit.

The second reason why the Trump administration presents only a temporary obstacle for solar is that the solar industry is a global business in which the U.S. plays a limited role. The U.S. accounted for only 18% of world installs in 2016. That means that even if the Trump administration somehow made the entire U.S. solar market disappear overnight, the global solar industry would see a one-time drop of 18% and would then start to grow again by its usual rate of about 15-20%. Moreover, there is strong government policy support for solar in much of the rest of the world even if the U.S. federal government becomes a policy laggard during any particular 4-year presidential term.

Third, the federal government is certainly not the only game in town when it comes to U.S. solar support. There is strong support for solar from many other quarters such as states, cities, municipalities, corporations, and homeowners.

At the state level, for example, solar will continue to see support from the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which require utilities to derive certain percentages of their electricity generation from renewable sources. There are RPS mandates in 38 states that require in total that 10.2% of U.S. electricity will have to come from renewable energy by 2020 and 12.9% by 2030, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). In addition, California and New York, for example, have very aggressive goals to source 50% of their electricity from clean energy by 2030.

Corporations will continue to be big drivers of solar regardless of whether or not the federal government supports solar. Many large U.S. corporations believe in the need to address global warming and have adopted aggressive sustainability goals. Large U.S. corporations such as Apple, Google, Wal-Mart, Amazon.com and many others signed 2.3 GW of power purchase agreements (PPAs) for clean energy in 2015 alone, according to BNEF. U.S. companies will buy another 17.4 GW of clean energy PPAs over the next nine years, according to BNEF.

After President Trump issued his executive order to rescind the Clean Power Plan, GE CEO Jeff Immelt expressed regret, saying that GE supports the Paris climate agreement and that corporations need to rise above national politics and do what is good for customers and society. He said, “Companies must have their own ‘foreign policy’ and create technology and solutions that address local needs for our customers and society.”

Markets await Trump policy plans

The markets are waiting for more clarity on the Trump administration’s renewable energy policy. President Trump has already ordered the EPA to rescind its Clean Power Plan (CPP), which was a plan to force utilities to reduce their carbon emissions. On the more positive side, however, EPA Director Scott Pruitt has said that the EPA will not try to overturn President Obama’s 2009 CO2 endangerment finding, which provided the legal basis for the EPA to regulate CO2. On other key issues, the markets are waiting to see if the Trump administration withdraws from the Paris climate agreement and whether there will be any changes to the U.S. solar investment tax credit that is due to last until 2021.

EPA Director Scott Pruitt has taken fire from climate deniers for not overturning former President Obama’s CO2 endangerment finding. However, Mr. Pruitt has reportedly concluded that the EPA would lose that legal battle and does not want to waste the time. The CO2 endangerment finding has already been affirmed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In order to overturn the finding, the EPA would have to provide scientific evidence that global warming is a hoax, evidence which of course does not exist.

The fact that the EPA’s CO2 endangerment finding will remain in place is very important for future climate regulation because it means that the EPA remains legally bound to regulate CO2. While the Trump Administration may have no intention of carrying out its legal duty to regulate CO2, the legal requirement will remain in place as the legal foundation for future presidential administrations to regulate CO2.

Regarding the Paris COP21 climate agreement, the Trump administration has said that it will decide before the May 26 G7 summit in Italy whether the U.S. will stay in the Paris agreement. Politico reported that President Trump’s advisors will have a showdown meeting on Tuesday, April 18, to hash out a decision. President Trump’s advisors are reportedly split on whether the U.S. should stay in the Paris agreement.

Under the Paris COP21 agreement, the U.S. agreed to meet a voluntary goal of reducing carbon emissions by 17% by 2020, by 26-28% by 2025, and an intent to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. There are 195 nations that have agreed to the Paris climate agreement as the culmination of decades of climate negotiations.

If the Trump administration does decide to withdraw from the Paris agreement, it will not be an immediate process. The agreement is binding for the next three years and the agreement after that requires a 1-year notice to withdraw, meaning that the Trump administration could not fully withdraw from the COP21 agreement until President Trump’s 4-year term is essentially over.

However, President Trump could withdraw faster if he takes the more drastic action of withdrawing altogether from United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That treaty established the overall UN climate process and was unanimously adopted by the Senate in 1992 and signed into law by President H.W. Bush. The U.S. could withdraw from that treaty on one year’s notice. That withdrawal would also effectively cancel U.S. participation in the Paris COP21 agreement.

Alternatively, as a kind of back-door exit, Mr. Trump could send the Paris agreement to Congress to be approved as a treaty. That approval would not be likely in the Republican-dominated Senate, shifting the blame to Congress for killing the agreement.

Instead of announcing an official withdrawal from the COP21 agreement, Mr. Trump could stay in the agreement but ignore the U.S. carbon reduction targets or seek to revise the targets. The targets are voluntary in any case and there are no penalties if the targets are not met. There is little chance that the U.S. will meet the targets anyway since Mr. Trump plans to rescind the Clean Power Plan, which was the main vehicle for the U.S. to meet its Paris targets.

Whether the U.S. stays in the Paris agreement or not, it is clear that other countries will need to take over the mantle of climate leadership if the world wants to meet the Paris goal of limiting global warning to 2 degrees Celsius by 2030. Key world leaders have already said they will stick with the Paris agreement regardless of what the Trump administration does and will stick to their voluntary COP21 carbon reduction goals.

China, for example, has already enshrined its Paris carbon-reduction targets into its domestic Five-Year plan. China’s Vice Foreign Minister said after Mr. Trump’s election that China plans to continue addressing climate change “whatever the circumstances.”

Europe’s top climate official, European commissioner Miguel Arias Canete, expressed regret about the Trump administration’s intent to rescind the Clean Power Plan, but said, “Despite all the current geopolitical uncertainties, the world can count on Europe to maintain global leadership in the fight against climate change. We will stand by Paris, we will defend Paris, and we will implement Paris.”

U.S. solar ITC rolls on

The Trump administration has not mentioned any intent to repeal or curb the already-existing solar investment tax credit (ITC), which provides a 30% tax credit on solar installs. Congress in late 2015 extended the solar federal ITC for 5 years at 30% through 2019 with a step down to 26% in 2020 and 22% in 2021. The ITC in 2022 will expire entirely for direct-owned residential, but will remain at 10% indefinitely for utility PV projects, non-residential, and third-party-owned residential solar installations.

If Republicans do make a move to curb the solar ITC, Senate Democrats could filibuster the attempt. Nevertheless, a repeal of the solar ITC could be wrapped up in a big tax reform package that bypasses a filibuster through reconciliation. Therefore, there is still a risk of a solar ITC repeal, which would put a big dent in U.S. solar demand over the next few years. Greentech Media estimates that solar installs in the U.S. could be cut in half if Congress were to repeal the solar ITC.

Despite these risks, there are reasons to suspect that Mr. Trump and the Republican Congress will not try to repeal solar ITC legislation. First, a majority of Republicans now believe that climate change is real and favors clean energy. A recent Pew Research poll found that 84% of Trump supporters favor expanding solar panel farms and 77% support expanding wind turbine farms.

Second, Washington already has an up-and-running jobs program with solar since the number of solar jobs has already exceeded the number of jobs in the U.S. oil/gas extraction sector and in the U.S. coal mining sector, as seen in the above chart. Moreover, many of those solar jobs are in Republican-dominated states. It would not make much sense to repeal the solar ITC and cause job layoffs in the solar sector while trying to stimulate new jobs elsewhere with an infrastructure spending program. In fact, solar already constitutes an energy infrastructure program.

U.S. solar jobs have soared by an annual rate of 22% over the last four years to 260,077 jobs at the end of 2016, according to the “National Solar Jobs Census 2016” published by The Solar Foundation (link). That shows that direct solar jobs now exceed the latest figures of 180,700 direct jobs in the oil/gas extraction industry and 50,300 direct jobs in the coal mining industry, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Globally, solar is an even bigger employer with 2.8 million solar jobs worldwide in 2015, up 11% from 2014, according to the “Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review 2016” from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) (link). China is way ahead of the U.S. in solar jobs with 1.7 million jobs in 2015 due to larger installation and manufacturing solar operations, according to the IRENA report. Japan also has more solar jobs than the U.S. at 377,100, according to IRENA.