THE BLOG

Solar Prices Poised to Fall Dramatically

05/25/2011 01:05 pm ET

I've been blogging a lot these days on the slow change in overall solar module prices, which have fallen a few percent while oil and natural gas prices fell ~65%. Long-term contracts make up a larger share of the module flow, so that the rise of supply above stagnant demand will take several months to translate into a big drop in solar's price. But apparently that big drop is still on the way...

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Eric Savitz at Tech Trader Daily shared some info on the potential collapse in solar electricity prices. He reported on analyst Dan Ries' view that solar could fall ~50% to ~$2 per Watt or ~11 cents per kWh by 2010. How could such a collapse happen?

Well, one of the main obstacles to lower prices over the last four years has been rising prices of a key feedstock for conventional solar modules -- polysilicon. The high polysilicon price resulted from supply not keeping up with brisk global solar demand growth. Polysilicon spot prices peaked ~$450/kg last summer, and have since fallen to a third that level, to below $150/kg. Ries projects polysilicon oversupply of almost 50% in 2009 (with supply rising to 80,000 metric tons and demand at only ~54,000 tons). He predicts even more oversupply in 2010, as supply grows ~40% and demand only ~20%. This oversupply may bring polysilicon prices down to the marginal cost of polysilicon production ~$60/kg, an 87% drop from the $450/kg last summer!

As I mentioned before, some module producers are already lowering their prices significantly. Yingli Energy of China lowered its Average Selling Price (ASP) for modules by 21% in the 4th quarter of 2008 to $3.19 from $4.04 per watt. They apparently have a ways to go to stay competitive in today's deflationary environment. But only a few producers like First Solar seem ready for low prices below $2.50 per watt (their thin-film manufacturing costs last quarter were ~$1.16 per watt), so there will probably be a period of shakeout and consolidation across the industry as prices fall. First Solar aims to lower its price below $1.50 per watt by 2011 through a 30% drop in manufacturing costs to ~80 cents per watt.

If such price drops do occur and oil prices rise at least to the marginal cost of new non-OPEC production ~$70 per barrel, the 2010s may be the decade that solar and wind power begin to dominate fossil energy as the source of new energy.

The rise of renewables is an exciting time for the climate, and an urgent time for us to make progress. The compromise Stimulus Bill and other policy efforts are crucial to help renewable energy and efficiency innovators have enough revenue to keep developing toward their potential in the years ahead.