Investment bank HSBC is starting to warm up to the sector again
After being relentlessly negative about the solar industry since the summer of 2008, investment bank HSBC is starting to warm up to the sector again
The upshot: The worst of the solar sector’s woes may be behind us. That doesn’t mean the good times are here yet—but it does open the door to selective investments in companies that can weather the three years of so of storms that still lie ahead, the bank says in a new report.
The thesis of “Global Solar Power: Solar Eclipsed?” is straightfoward: The supply glut that has plagued the sector all year will persist until 2012. That will keep pushing prices down—bad news for corporate profits, good news for the sector as a whole as it becomes more competitive with traditional sources of power generation.
HSBC’s winners include Yingli Green Power, Sharp, Solar World, and REC. The bank doesn’t care as much for Suntech Power and LDK, among many others.
What’s really interesting about HSBC’s new report is how solar power stacks up today against other ways of generating electricity—it doesn’t. That is, all the other power-generation technologies are in roughly the same neighborhood, even wind power—but not solar.
For instance, HSBC estimates costs per megawatt for different options: Combined-cycle gas, 43 euros; regular coal, 62 euros; onshore wind, 58 euros; nuclear power, 48 euros; geothermal, 43 euros. Photovoltaic solar power costs 290 euros per megawatt; concentrated solar power 181 euros.
Or put another way: What price would oil or gas have to be for each technology to be break-even without subsidies, using combined-cycle gas turbines as the low-cost yardstick?
Geothermal is the cheapest: It is competitive with natural gas at $5.16 per million BTUs or oil at $57 a barrel. Nuclear power breaks even at $6.26 and $69.
Traditional, onshore wind power breaks even with gas at $8.33 or oil at $92. Offshore wind still needs a push: It requires gas at $17.14 or oil at $189.
In contrast, solar thermal needs to see natural gas at $35.66 or oil at $393. And good old photovoltaic solar, like the kind on rooftops? Natural gas needs to be at $59.61 or oil at $657 a barrel.
Quick reality check: Gas today is at $3.93 and oil is at $66.
That’s not to say there’s no hope for solar power. There’s always the government.
Thanks to price supports, HSBC expects solar power to reach retail “grid parity” in some places—California and New York—as soon as next year. That means solar power will generate electricity that’s competitive with what you pay on your bill every month. It will take another five years or so for solar to reach wholesale grid parity—when it becomes a no-brainer investment for big utilities.