The frustration out there is palpable. Skim the comments sections of popular financial sites like Zero Hedge or Seeking Alpha and you’ll see gloom-and-doomy articles drawing responses like “You’ve been saying the same %^#&*! thing for years…he’s a broken clock…this is just scare mongering.” And those are the polite responses.
Which means two things. First, we’ve entered the final act of a familiar play in which a bubble lasts far longer than it should, leading to “prediction fatigue” for analysts and increasingly vocal impatience within the analysts’ audience. The discord usually peaks just as the bubble is about to burst.
Second, there’s little point in repeating the same warnings to an audience that’s heard it all before and trusts it less each time.
So let’s look beyond the approaching darkness and start planning for after the (inevitable if not imminent) implosion of the fiat currency/fractional reserve banking system. In other words, what should we expect to buy with our hyper-appreciated gold and silver when financial assets like stocks and bonds have fallen to pennies on today’s dollar?
One answer is that several emerging disruptive technologies will – at the bottom when few are paying attention – beget a flock of next-generation Googles and Apples. By learning about them now we’ll be in a position to judge them accurately and buy them wisely when the time comes.
This is the first post in a series that will profile some of these technologies, explain how they work and why they’ll change the world, and list the companies currently building positions in each field. Together, these posts will form the basis of a book (working title: After the Crash: Tomorrow’s World-Changing Technologies and How To Invest In Them), due to be published in early 2018.
Energy goes exponential
Let’s begin with an easy one. Solar power is taking over the world — despite widespread skepticism. See the comments section of this 2015 post for a sense of readers’ brutally-negative expectations at the time.
Then consider what has happened in the intervening two years:
(Think Progress) – For years, opponents of renewable power, like President Donald Trump, have argued they simply aren’t affordable. The reality is quite different.
Unsubsidized renewables have become the cheapest source of new power — by far — in more and more countries, according to a new report from the United Nations and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).
In just one year, the cost of solar generation worldwide dropped on average 17 percent, the report found. The result is “more bang for the buck,” as the U.N. and BNEF put it. Last year saw 138.5 gigawatts of new renewable capacity. That not only beat the 2015 record of 127.5 GW, but it was built with a total investment that was 23 percent lower than in 2015.
“After the dramatic cost reductions of the past few years,” explained BNEF chair Michael Liebreich, “unsubsidised wind and solar can provide the lowest cost new electrical power in an increasing number of countries, even in the developing world — sometimes by a factor of two.”
“It’s a whole new world,” Liebreich said. “Instead of having to subsidise renewables, now authorities may have to subsidise natural gas plants to help them provide grid reliability…Solar power delivers cheapest unsubsidised electricity ever, anywhere, by any technology,”
In March, during the hours of 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., system average hourly prices were frequently at or below $0 per megawatthour (MWh). In contrast, average hourly prices in March 2013–15 during this time of day ranged from $14/MWh to $45/MWh.
On March 11th, the California power grid broke 50% solar power for the first time – when considering ALL sources of solar power in the state:
The conclusion? Solar appears to be going exponential, and if current trends continue for just a little while longer it will dominate the energy landscape. Here’s a little background:
There are two main types of solar power, of which by far the most common is photovoltaic (PV). This term derives from the Greek word for “light” and the more modern “volt”, the unit of electro-motive force. In the most common version of PV, sunlight strikes a piece of silicon, dislodging electrons which produce an electric current.
Solar cells — flat silicon planes several inches square — are the devices in which this process takes place. They are combined and enclosed in glass-covered panels which are configured in arrays ranging from a few square yards on a rooftop to several square miles for utility-scale solar farms.
During solar’s long gestation, its Holy Grail has been “grid parity,” the point at which the electricity generated by a rooftop solar panel is as cheap as the power delivered by the local electric utility. As recently as a decade ago PV solar was so expensive that grid parity seemed an impossibly-distant goal. But then several things happened. First, solar was caught up in the financial bubble of the mid-2000s and attracted enough capital to greatly expand the world’s silicon and solar panel production capacity. The resulting oversupply caused solar panel prices to collapse, the industry to lose vast amounts of money and many solar stocks to fall perilously close to zero.
But the glut accelerated solar’s price decline just as governments around the world decided that global warming needed to be addressed with, among other things, renewable energy. They instituted a range of incentives designed to encourage homeowners to install rooftop solar panels and utilities to build solar farms. The incentives worked beyond their architects’ wildest dreams, leading early adopters like Japan and Germany to install more solar capacity in five years than had entire world up to that point. This soaring demand allowed the solar panel makers to fully utilize the factories they had built during the boom years. Longer production runs produced massive economies of scale, and prices plunged even further.
Spurred by this suddenly-booming demand, makers of related gear like inverters — which convert DC current from solar arrays to AC current that can power appliances — developed better, cheaper versions. And the people who install solar panels on homeowners’ roofs learned from each other until a standardized set of “best practices” emerged to make installation both fast and cheap.
The International Energy Agency now predicts that solar’s share of the global electricity market will rise to 26%, making it the world’s single largest energy source. The global electricity market itself is expected to double in that time, so solar will be grabbing a rising share of an expanding market.
Unlike many other emerging technologies, solar is already a fairly mature ecosystem with several different types of companies operating in various parts of the business. Among them:
• Panel makers. Dozens of companies around the world turn silicon (and occasionally other materials) into solar cells. US-based First Solar is both the largest by market capitalization and the only major PV firm that specializes in “thin film” panels made of cadmium telluride. Most other major panel makers use silicon and tend to be headquartered in China, where costs are low and demand for locally-made panels is high.
• Installers. System installers like Solar City (now part of Tesla), Vivint and Sunrun build and maintain solar arrays on homeowners’ rooftops in return for lease or loan payments that are typically less than current utility bills. It’s not yet clear if this business model works, however, because of the high cost of marketing to individual homeowners.
• Yieldcos. Similar to real estate investment trusts (REITs) with commercial property or master limited partnerships (MLPs) with gas pipelines, these firms own solar farms and pay most of the resulting cash flow to investors. After some early stumbles, the concept seems to be stabilizing and within a few years should be a hot niche for income-oriented investors.
Solar works today, everyone wants it at the right price, and lots of companies can supply it. But that is not an invitation to buy a bunch of random solar stocks. Even during boom years there will be winners and losers, and being able to tell them apart is crucial. That’s a subject for another post, but for now it’s enough to know that solar stocks are in a tumultuous boom in which they’re moving a lot of product while watching their share prices languish.
When the broad markets finally crumble, solar will more than likely be swept along with dying industries like oil, coal, and bricks-and-mortar retailing. The difference is that at the bottom the surviving solar stocks will be ready to soar. Here’s a piece of research that may be helpful in identifying and tracking the eventual winners:
If you look at data sheets and cost structures, Canadian Solar (NASDAQ:CSIQ), ReneSola(NYSE:SOL), JinkoSolar (NYSE:JKS), Hanwha Q Cells (NASDAQ:HQCL), and JA Solar(NASDAQ:JASO) are all making very similar products and selling them for very similar prices.
Commodities are prevalent partly because trying to take a different path from commodity panels has been really tough. SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR) and First Solar(NASDAQ:FSLR) — who have differentiated technology — have been stuck competing with companies who were willing to sell a commodity product at low prices, competing on price alone, putting extreme pressure on their businesses. And it was almost impossible for the differentiation in technology to show when commodity prices plunged year after year.
Changing winds in solar energy
The dynamic of costs driving everything may be starting to change in 2017. In residential solar, customers are trending toward more efficient panels to maximize the power from their roofs, and they’re willing to pay a premium to do so. Finally, cost isn’t the only driver in the market today.
On the utility side, commodity panels have had an advantage, but the weakness of the manufacturers in the market could undermine any cost advantage they have. Utilities and solar developers want low costs, but they also want reliable manufacturing partners. If the manufacturer goes bankrupt, the warranty on panels is worthless, and given the long lead time many projects are built on, they may not be able to supply panels as contracted. And if the difference between a reliable manufacturer and a weak one is a few pennies per watt, then a stronger partner may be worth the premium.
We’re starting to see signs of developers making this decision in 2017. First Solar has signed 252 MW of projects in Australia, 107 MW in France, and a collaborative deal with Turkey’s Zorlu Holding to distribute solar panels in 26 markets. SunPower signed a 125 MW agreement with NextEra Energy to supply its P-Series panels. These announcements came as Chinese manufacturers have announced very few large supply agreements in comparison to their capacity and have begun reporting financial losses.
As commodity manufacturers weaken, customers find their products less attractive. We saw this as Suntech Power hit financial trouble, and in the last few years at Yingli Green Energy, where its financial weakness has resulted in a decline in shipments. Customers want stable partners, and that may put First Solar and SunPower in a good position.
R&D could decide the future winners in solar
Playing into this dynamic is investment in R&D. To stay ahead of the competition, solar manufacturers need to invest in R&D. First Solar and SunPower are investing a lot more in R&D than competitors.
Lately, this has led to First Solar’s Series 6 upgrade and SunPower’s X-Series and P-Series products, which should have an efficiency advantage over comparable products in the market. And as they invest more in R&D, that competitive advantage should increase.
Can technology create a long-term advantage?
Everyone in solar is in rough financial shape in early 2017 as margins shrink and the global market goes through a slight downturn. And most Chinese manufacturers are both highly indebted and have little ability to differentiate on a technology level, so they’ll likely continue to struggle in the commodity market. And as that weakness shows, developers may choose stronger players as suppliers.
This creates an opening for First Solar and SunPower, who have differentiated technology and more stable operations. First Solar’s massive expected $1.5 billion cash balance even at the end of 2017 will mean this is a stable partner. SunPower’s balance sheet isn’t as strong, but it’s two-thirds owned by French oil giant Total, which is a big reason it has attracted customers like NextEra Energy.
Both manufacturers may be able to consolidate power in 2017 as competitors hit a rough patch. And if they can do that, they may emerge with a larger market share and higher margins in the future. With solar energy just reaching a point of sustainable growth, that could be a great position to be in for investors.