Solar Power: Brighter Long-Term Investment Outlook

With utilities adopting standards to increase the amount of solar-generated electricity in coming years, the U.S. could bolster its presence in the global solar-power market. The quickening growth pace could present attractive opportunities for investors, according to some professionals.

At the end of 2009, the U.S. ranked fourth in total solar capacity, with 2.09 gigawatts installed, behind Germany with 9.79Gw, Spain with 4.01Gw, and Japan with 2.68Gw, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. With U.S. installed capacity growing at a faster pace than that of the international market, the country may be on track to become a more dominant market by 2014, according to Larry Sherwood, an analyst at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC).

Some 23Gw of solar capacity are under development in the U.S., enough to provide electricity for 4.4 million households, according to the Solar Energy Industries Assn. (SEIA). Solar demand in the U.S. is expected to grow 75 percent in 2011, compared with 2010. About 1.5Gw to 2.0Gw of capacity—1.36Gw in California alone—is scheduled to be installed next year.

One factor could snarl that time line: the expiration of federal incentives, specifically the Treasury Dept.'s cash grant program, which currently covers 30 percent of a project's costs, as long as construction has begun by the end of 2010. SEIA and other groups are pushing to have the qualifying construction start date extended by two years, to the end of 2012. Members of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee didn't return calls asking when they would vote on extending the program. Kaufman Brothers said in an Aug. 17 research note that the firm didn't expect a major decision on solar incentives until after the fall U.S. elections.

U.S. Focus on Utility-Scale Solar

The diversion of $3.5 billion from the Energy Dept.'s Loan Guarantee Program to other stimulus projects—and uncertainty as to whether any of the money will be restored—is also delaying some projects. Indeed, the main reason the U.S. solar market lags Europe's is that the federal government has consistently failed to commit to a long-term policy offering financial incentives to power providers, without which solar can't yet compete with such cheaper sources of electric generation as coal and natural gas.

While Europe is moving toward smaller rooftop installation, utility-scale projects are fast becoming the focus in the U.S. and are the most likely way for the U.S. to catch up with the leading solar markets. Photovoltaic panel makers FirstSolar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWRA) have large pipelines of utility-scale projects and will be dominant players in the U.S., starting in 2011, says Matthew Page, one of the managers of the Guinness Atkinson Alternative Energy Fund (GAAEX).

With so much uncertainty surrounding incentives at home and overseas, the fact that more countries are adopting renewable energy standards and planning to build solar plants has analysts and some fund managers feeling more confident about the industry. "I'm bullish on solar because the market is no longer dominated by two or three countries," says Jeff Osborne, an analyst who covers clean energy stocks at Stifel Nicolaus (SF). "Morocco said in 2009 that it wanted to build 2Gw of solar." Utilities in Eastern Europe, he adds, are eager to diversify their energy sources to reduce their exposure to periodic supply disruptions from Russia's Gazprom (OGZPY:US), which provides roughly 25 percent of Europe's natural gas needs.

Solar's brighter future has some investment pros seeking opportunities beyond manufacturers of photovoltaic solar panels. Page at Guinness Atkinson recommends investing in stocks likely to benefit, no matter where solar demand is strongest. Page likes SMA Solar (S92:GR), a German producer of inverters, which convert the direct current produced by solar and wind into alternating current that can be used on the grid.

Satcon's Utility-Scale Inverters

The bigger the installation, the more important the inverter that enables a connection to the grid, says Osborne at Stifel Nicolaus.

While SMA Solar dominates the inverter market, Satcon Technology (SATC) is the largest manufacturer of utility-scale inverters, whose importance is sure to grow as the U.S. market moves toward utility-scale systems. While Satcon continues to report net losses, its revenue tripled from a year earlier, to $27.6 million in the second quarter. Some 45 percent of that volume derived from Europe, vs. nearly all its demand coming from North America a year earlier. The company's "geographic diversification is also reflected in its record backlog of $111 million," 20 percent of which comes from Europe, with another 33 percent coming from Asia, according to an Aug. 6 research note by Raymond James & Co. (RJF). The total backlog has grown 35 percent since June 30. Satcon has announced plans to build annual production capacity from 1Gw now, to 1.25Gw by the end of 2010, and to 1.75Gw in 2011.

Much of Satcon's revenue growth and gross margin expansion, bolstered by a recent shift to lower-cost manufacturing in China, is being offset by higher fixed costs necessitated by international expansion and a bigger workforce, said Raymond James, which still expects the company to post net losses through 2011. The red ink didn't stop Osborne at Stifel from upgrading the stock on July 27 to buy, from hold, citing improving margins and prospects for market share expansion.

The transformation of the U.S. market from rooftop to utility-scale systems is also expected to benefit Power-One (PWER) and Advanced Energy Industries (AEIS), which also make inverters. Dougherty & Co. estimated in a July 30 research note that Power-One's total renewable energy backlog increased by more than $500 million, compared with the first quarter, and is now over $900 million, the equivalent of 3.2Gw to 3.5Gw in shipments. The fast-growing inverter business introduces "a compelling growth aspect to an otherwise cyclical semiconductor capital equipment stock," giving the company more potential than other semiconductor makers to branch into adjacent segments such as solar over the long term, Pacific Crest Securities said in an Aug. 12 note.

Key Role for Capital Equipment Makers

Another company that is expected to do well regardless of where demand is strongest is STR Holdings (STRI), which makes adhesive encapsulants, the ethylene vinyl acetate sheets used to weatherproof solar panels and prevent yellowing. Demand for STR's products is strong, with half the world's solar panel makers signed up to use them, says Page at Guinness Atkinson. The company's net sales for the second quarter rose 126 percent from a year earlier, to $67 million, and were up more than 22 percent from the first quarter.

Capital equipment makers are also a fairly safe bet, with attractive returns on invested capital, says Osborne. Applied Materials (AMAT) and GT Solar (SOLR) both make the semiconductor equipment that deposits chemicals on large polysilicon cell surfaces. Applied Materials also makes equipment that cuts silicon wafers, while GT Solar makes polysilicon and wafers. Osborne sees them as "the arms merchants to the sector," which is attracting new customers in such countries as Korea and India.

If utility-scale installations grow as analysts expect, photovoltaic technologies will in time be outshone by concentrated solar thermal power, or CSP, which uses rotating mirrors to reflect the sun toward parabolic troughs carrying a liquid heat conductor or to so-called "power towers" with hot water boilers on top. The concentrated sunlight superheats the liquid heat conductor or the water, producing steam that drives turbines and generates electricity.

The companies that make materials for solar thermal installations such as mirrors and receiver tubes are now privately held. Turbines are made by public companies, however, and Siemens (SI) is one manufacturer whose turbine orders may increase as solar thermal power gets commercialized. BrightSource Energy, the privately held developer of Ivanpah, a 392-megawatt complex consisting of three CSP plants in California, is using Siemens turbines; the first of those plants is scheduled to begin operation in 2012.

By 2020, 6Gw of Solar Capacity

Still, photovoltaic systems are the backbone of the U.S. market, now and for the foreseeable future. In the U.S., 29 states and Washington now have mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards, while a further six states have set voluntary goals. Most of the solar development is occurring in the 16 states that have "carve-outs," which establish a minimum percentage of electricity that retailers must provide from solar or distributed generation by a certain date, says Justin Barnes, a policy analyst for the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE).

Total capacity for grid-connected PV installations was 1.26Gw at the end of 2009. Total solar capacity must reach 6Gw by 2020, and 9.5Gw by 2025, in order for the 16 states with solar carve-outs to meet their targets, according to projections by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is part of the U.S. Energy Dept. That's expected to be a key driver of revenue growth for manufacturers of PV panels and related materials.

Apart from companies that serve the PV panel market, there isn't yet much of a solar industry for retail investors to buy into. That will change in the next couple of years, says Nancy Pfund, a managing partner at DBL Investors, a San Francisco venture capital firm that was spun out of a JPMorgan equity fund in 2008 and which has invested in the Ivanpah complex. "There's going to be a lot more choice very soon," she says, citing the coming of gigawatt-sized solar projects by 2016.

Eventually, manufacturers of solar mirrors used in CSP plants will either go public or be acquired by public companies, she says. She foresees the same trajectory for makers of concentrated photovoltaics, which boost the efficiency of energy conversion from silicon on the panels by focusing on how the silicon is arranged alongside glass.

Solar Financing Options

Solar installation financing is another potentially big area for investment, Pfund believes. She sits on the board of SolarCity, the only full-service solar installation company in the U.S. In January, SolarCity signed a deal with Pacific Gas & Electric (PCG) under which the California utility will provide $60 million in tax equity financing for solar installations in U.S. homes and businesses in exchange for lease revenue from SolarCity customers, as well as federal investment tax credits and local rebates. SolarCity's financing options let homeowners and businesses switch to solar power with no up-front investment, so they can start saving on energy costs right away. The company's goal is to be a national brand and become publicly traded, although that's a few years away, says Pfund.

Banks such as Rabobank have also begun to establish tax equity funds. As solar energy becomes more prevalent, Pfund believes more utilities will be attracted to the financing model in order to avoid losing some of their biggest customers, who will move to solar because of how much power they consume.

Investors need to maintain a lengthy time horizon in betting on the growth of the solar industry, says Mark Burger, a principal at Kestrel Development, a consulting firm for renewable energy policy, markets, and technologies.

Solar is "the new 30-year Treasury bond," Burger says. "It's a nice, conservative investment. And you'll get a better return than owning a Treasury bond."

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