Solar, Utility Scale

FiTs and the Future of European PV Markets

As the photovoltaic industry enters its post-feed-in-tariff (FiT) phase, it is important to remember that this incentive along with its ensuing profits was a recent phenomenon and was never intended to be unending. The industry and its stakeholders (including those who design and administer incentives) should have learned valuable lessons about how rapidly a market can overheat, how expensive it can quickly become to support a rapidly ballooning market, and how quickly PV can be deployed. Much innovation came with the FiT era. For every new entrant (many new to solar) that left, many stayed and will continue innovating.

Amidst the backdrop of several key European market leaders mulling major changes to their own FiTs, the annual EPIA Market Workshop was held in Brussels on March 21. The first session, on utility-scale PV plants, was moderated by EPIA’s outgoing president, Ingmar Wilhelm (Winfried Hoffmann was elected as president, a position he previously held), with panel members Christopher Burghardt from First Solar, Hansjorg Lerchenmuller from Soitec, Thierry Lepercq from Solairedirect, Hanwha SolarOne’s Andreas Liebheit, and Phillip Kunze from Solaria Germany. The discussion began with a comparison of FiTs and tenders. Feed in tariffs offer cost control, but only if the market can be dissuaded from boom and bust cycles, while tenders offer budget control and a least cost solution, but must be managed.

Utility scale is the largest growing segment of the market, competing on a levelized-cost-of-energy (LCOE) basis as a replacement technology, Burghardt pointed out. First Solar prefers a commercial negotiation based on a PPA or other incentive, he explained, as tender bidding often leads to a race to the bottom, which in turn can lead to failed projects. He noted that the industry needs to move from selling a financial product to selling power plants; France is running a tender, and Italy is considering it.

France cut its FiT by 70%, and then a further 30%, pointed out Lepercq, paraphrasing Nietzsche: what does not kill you makes you stronger. Depending on government incentives is dangerous and faulty, while the industry needs sustainability, he stressed. The market in France is now PPA driven, and the cost of wholesale electricity is 16 Euro cents/kilowatt-hour (kWh).

In Italy and Greece, banks are reluctant to take a risk on large-scale projects, thus passing the financial risk back to the investors and other project participants, noted Liebheit from Hanwha SolarOne.

Kunze from Solaria noted that CSP appears to be losing share. Further cost reduction is imperative, he said, and posed the question: can the PPA model survive in Europe?

In the second session, Large Scale Roof-Top Systems, moderator and newly elected EPIA president Winfried Hoffmann offered examples of commercial electricity rates in Europe:

  • Germany, €0.11/kWh to €0.15/kWh [US $0.14/kWh -$0.20/kWh]
  • France, €0.07/kWh to €0.10/kWh [$0.09/kWh – $0.13/kWh]
  • Italy, €0.13/kWh to €0.17/kWh [$0.17/kWh – $0.22/kWh]
  • Spain, €0.09/kWh to €0.14/kWh [US $0.12/kWh – $0.18/kWh]
  • UK, €0.09/kWh to €0.12/kWh kWh [US $0.12/kWh – $0.16/kWh]

Panelist Martin Heming from Schott Solar pointed out that FiTs are ending, and the market for systems bigger than 1-megawatt-peak (MWp) must become part of the energy market. Tomas Garcia from SunEdison remarked that self-consumption will be important for all rooftop systems. Panelists mused whether system designers will be motivated to innovate now that FiTs are ending — but nobody offered any answers to the question, or even suggested what the answer should and could involve. Panelists included Heming, Garcia, Virgilio Navarro from Atersa, Boris Klebensberger from SolarWorld, and Ricardo Meireles from Martifer Solar.

In a session on Residential Rooftop Systems moderated by EPIA director Fabrice Didier, Franco Valentini from Elettronica Santerno suggested selling solutions instead of selling systems, while Eclareon’s David Perez emphasized stand-alone off-grid single family dwellings, posing the question: do all systems have to be grid-connected? Willi Ernst from Centrosolar argued that in Germany, “solar” has become a negative. SunPower’s Oliver Schafer said that the industry needed to focus on attributes of solar other than cheap. He also noted that new building codes are needed, along with net metering and education. Self-consumption will force utilities into new business models, argued Valentini, in which they will lose their grid fees, but will find ways to recover them.

One of the negative outcomes of the FiT incentive was an absence of creativity, an attendee pointed out. Instead of creativity and innovation, the industry built bigger and bigger systems. The attendee posed a rhetorical question: now that the FiT has pushed the industry to multi-gigawatts of capacity, what do we do with it?

Lessons of the FiT Past and Future

During the heady first years of the feed-in tariff concept, it became sacrosanct to suggest that the instrument would drastically (or suddenly) change, or end. During these few profitable years, new entrants observed the significant growth enjoyed by the industry, and ignored the lessons of the past: off-grid markets, standalone systems, working in markets without subsidies, and competing on the attributes of solar other than its potential of being cheap. The industry’s history, they believed, could not possibly have any bearing on its future. They were wrong.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, wrote philosopher George Santayana. Many in the industry chose to forget the FiT model’s past struggles on the belief that it would transfer to other regional markets and continue to drive industry demand. Many a business model was developed on the belief that FiTs would not end, or at least would do so in a seamless manner.

The FiT incentive drove the PV industry to gigawatt levels of demand, but it also drove it to promise ever cheaper technology and system prices. These promises, along with the current low technology prices, relate only slightly to the true cost of developing and manufacturing the technology. SunPower’s Schafer correctly observed that the industry needs to focus on PV’s true attributes: clean energy, minimal running costs once installed, and energy independence. Granted, these attributes are a tougher sale than simply being cheap – forty years of industry history should have taught this lesson — but the end, cheap is not a terribly aspirational attribute. The long-term economics of solar have much more to offer than an adherence to the goal of being cheap. The way forward for solar is in its history, if only it will pay attention to it.

Let’s not prove Santayana correct. The industry should remember its history, value its pioneers, and bring the lessons of the past forward to the future.