Please forgive us the journalistic conceit of collecting these year-end trends — it’s a necessary evil we all put ourselves through. In solar, this year is a bit more nerve-wracking than last. Here are ten trends in a particularly dynamic and pivotal year that will echo into 2012.

In no particular order:

Solar PV panel pricing has plummetted

Some will attribute it to economies of scale, others to Moore’s law, and others to China dumping panels at below cost prices, but the bottom line is solar module pricing dropped 30 percent in 2011.

David Crane, the president and CEO of NRG Energy observed, “In the last two years, the delivered cost of energy from PV was cut in half. NRG expects the cost to fall in half again in the next two years, which would make solar power less expensive than retail electricity in roughly 20 states, he said. The expected drop in solar costs has “the potential to revolutionize the hub-and-spoke power system, which currently makes up the power industry,” quoted in Platts.

The U.S. joins the one gigawatt club

The United States finally passed the one gigawatt of PV installed in a year mark, a barrier long eclipsed by Germany and Italy.

The third quarter was a record with the U.S. installing 449 megawatts of PV, more than the U.S. installed in all of 2009. 2011 looks like it will finish with more than 1.5 gigawatts installed in the U.S., a massive increase due to utility deployments, the 1603 Treasury grant, and a viable third-party residential finance mechanism, up from the 887 megawatts installed in 2010.

The U.S. solar energy industry was one of the fastest-growing sectors of the American economy in 2011. In total, cumulative grid-connected solar electric installations have reached more than 3 gigawatts.

U.S. — China Trade Dispute

On October 19, SolarWorld and some unnamed solar companies, acting as CASM, the Coalition of American Solar Manufacturers filed an official claim with the U.S.Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission alleging that China was dumping solar panels in the U.S. and providing unfair subsidies to its solar industries. We have covered the issue extensively, ranging from claims by CASM to counterclaims by CASE. Obama weighed in on the matter as did CASE’s Jigar Shah, SolarWorld’s Gordon Brinser as well as the Chinese module vendors. Chinese organizations have accused the U.S. of dumping polysilicon in China.

This is uncharted territory for U.S. solar and the impact on the growth of the U.S. and global industry as well as jobs is unpredictable. The claim happened in 2011 but the ripples will be felt in 2012. Here is the case calender:

Solyndra’s bankruptcy and political firestorm

Solyndra was the DOE loan guarantee recipient and bankruptcy that finally brought solar power into the public consciousness — in precisely the opposite way from that which the solar industry would have preferred. Everyone including Fox News and Congress had an opinion.

This was a solar company that should not have received VC funding and should not have received a DOE loan guarantee. Not because of China’s pricing or alleged crony capitalism but because it was a lousy design. More than 1,100 employees lost their jobs as did a few DOE employees and a few other projects like SolarCity’s SolarStrong felt the impact. On a positive note, the echoes of this story are starting to fade, although they might re-emerge as the U.S. presidential race heats up. We’ve written scores of articles on the topic if you’d like the gory details. The company’s website is still up. We detailed a recent auction at their site here.

First Solar fumbles

A year ago First Solar’s stock was trading at $130.00, the firm had hefty margins and was held up as the standard bearer of success in the solar industry from an execution as well as a technological standpoint. All this from an American thin-film firm, no less. Fast forward a year later and the stock is at $31.80, the firm has a market cap of $2.84 billion, has experienced a shaky CEO shift, and is potentially a takeover target.

Earlier this week, the firm’s shares closed at a record low of 0.65 times book value, (the value of its assets minus liabilities), cheaper than every renewable energy equipment maker with a market value greater than $1 billion except for wind turbine manufacturer Vestas Wind, according to data from Bloomberg. Paging GE, Siemens, Samsung, or any Asian private equity firm flush with cash.

But don’t write the First Solar eulogy just yet. First Solar still has the most impressive cost per watt and gross margin of any solar module manufacturer on earth and still has a vertically-integrated business model that can weather this solar storm. First Solar might choose to get through this wilderness on its own.

CSP projects, especially trough technology, shift to PV

Firms like Solar Trust, now called Solar Millennium, (now called bankrupt) have had to transform solar plants like the 500-megawatt solar thermal power plant it had been planning in Blythe, California into a 500-megawatt plant photovoltaic deployment.

The shift comes because of “improved market conditions” for building power plants with low-priced dollar-per-watt PV modules. Switching to PV also lets firms build plants in smaller increments and PV plants are just plain easier to build than CSP plants. A total of 3 gigawatts of solar thermal projects have been converted to PV projects, according to GTM CSP industry analyst Brett Prior. Earlier this year, Prior estimated that the installed cost of a thermal plants might be around $5.79 per watt, while the installed cost for utility-scale PV plants is closer to $2.50 per watt.

The advantage that CSP does have is the potential for thermal storage to level out intermittency and provide power after dark. Power tower architectures, like those of IPO-aspirant and DOE loan guarantee-recipient BrightSource Energy, seem to have an LCOE advantage over trough systems, according to the company and Prior’s calculations below.


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