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U.S. Solar Industry Posts Solid Q1 With 506 MW Installed

For all the turmoil surrounding the American solar industry, the U.S. followed up its record fourth quarter of 2011 with its second-strongest quarter yet.

According to new figures released by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), 506 megawatts (MW) of new installations came online during the first quarter of 2012. That robust figure followed the American industry’s record-setting 780 MW that came online between October and the end of December, and it puts it on pace to easily surpass last year’s installation mark.

The new numbers are increasingly meaningful as the industry looks to assess the fallout from a string of potential market disruptions. The Section 1603 grant expired at the end of 2011 and the low-cost Chinese panels driving much of the U.S. industry were recently hit with hefty tariffs, the largest of which dates back to February of this year.

But so far, so good from an installation perspective as an 85 percent growth over the first quarter of 2011 has increased confidence that the industry will maintain its momentum through 2012. The better-than-expected first-quarter figures has led GTM Research to bump up its 2012 projections by about 15 percent to 3.3 gigawatts (GW), which would represent a big leap over the 1.8 GW installed in 2011. From there, the projected growth is relatively flat in 2013 as the impacts of the 1603 expiration and the new tariffs finally catch up with the industry. But strong growth is still projected for 2014 (about 5.3 GW), 2015 (about 6.6 GW) and 2016 (about 8.4 GW) as the U.S. emerges as a global market leader.

The readjusted 2012 outlook, coupled with expected declines in the European market, would push U.S. market share into double digits at nearly 11 percent. This would be up from 7 percent in 2011 and 5 percent in 2010, and it’d make the U.S. the fourth largest global PV market. The upward trajectory would also make it one of four large-scale international markets with expected long-term growth, with the others being China, India and Japan.

Two major factors helped fuel U.S. installation in the first quarter, according to the report. At least 1 GW of modules were “safe harbored” at the end of 2011, a common strategy used to qualify modules and inverters for the 1603 grant ahead of its expiration. Many of those modules were deployed during the first quarter of 2012. While the smaller countervailing duty was announced during the first quarter, the much larger anti-dumping tariff wasn’t announced until May. The first quarter was marked by uncertainty and new strategies to avoid penalties. The report notes that anecdotally, some Chinese suppliers became the importer of record, so they could absorb the tariff themselves and sell “tariff-proof” modules. Still, many developers have shifted some procurement to non-Chinese producers.

The role of American panel manufacturing has taken center stage in the political fight surrounding the solar industry. From that perspective, the first quarter proved to be disappointing as U.S. solar panel production amounted to 160 MW, less than half the amount produced during the first quarter of 2011.

Other key takeaways from the report include:

  • New Jersey was the largest state market, with 174 MW of installations in Q1 2012.
  • Blended module prices for Q1 2012 were down to $0.94/W, a staggering 47 percent lower than Q1 2011 levels of $1.78/W.
  • Installed prices fell in every market segment year-over-year compared to Q1 2011. Residential installed prices fell 7.3 percent, commercial installed prices fell 11.5 percent, and utility prices fell 24.7 percent over Q1 2011. The overall blended average installed price
    fell 17.2 percent year-over-year.
  • Utility-scale installations, which accounted for more than half of the 2011 fourth-quarter figures, represented a much smaller percentage in the first quarter of 2012. Utility installations reached 124 MW in the first quarter. Most of the utility-scale installation is expected to come during the second half of the year, and GTM Research is 1.8 GW to come online by the end of the year
  • Cumulative operating PV capacity in the U.S. now totals 4.4 GW.
  • A total of 1.1. GW of concentrating solar power (CSP) is now under construction.
  • Abengoa’s Solana Generating Station received a $125 million investment from Capital Riesgo Global, a subsidiary of Banco Santander, for an equity stake in the CSP project.
  • Construction of the CSP power tower at the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project was completed in February 2012.
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