The top 5 solar stories of 2017

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There is no doubt that this has been a dramatic year for the U.S. solar market. We’ve not just had one crisis to deal with; We’ve had many, most of which either originate from or center on the pro-coal and nuclear administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

In looking back over the year, there are a number of issues that we delved into in depth, and in this article we are going to take a look at the top 5 stories pv magazine USA covered in 2017.

 

Section 201

Both the biggest story of 2017 and the biggest potential impact on the U.S. solar market come in the form of the Section 201 trade case filed by Suniva in April and joined by SolarWorld later.

Before we saw the filing, pv magazine USA staff didn’t even know that Section 201 – a massive loophole in the multinational trade agreements signed by the United States over the last few decades – even existed.

Through this arcane legal maneuver, Suniva and SolarWorld asked for a combination of import tariffs and either quotas or a minimum price on pv cells and modules from pretty much any foreign nation. These trade actions would double current prices on imported PV cells and modules, and the quota could put a hard stop on market growth in the next few years.

But if the mechanism for addressing the dominance of imported solar in the U.S. market is new, the issue driving it isn’t. Prior to the launch of the USA site, pv magazine journalists spent years covering the previous two trade cases launched by SolarWorld, as well as the decimation of Western PV makers who could not compete with low-cost imports.

President Trump looks likely to impose strong trade remedies, which GTM Research and IHS have warned could have severe impacts on the U.S. solar market. However, it is also probable that at least some cell and module makers will relocate to the United States. And while this is unlikely to result in the the same volume of jobs which could be lost to a market slowdown, there is the potential to bring back supply chains to accompany this manufacturing.

Some of our top articles on Section 201:

USITC finds serious injury in Section 201 trade case 

Section 201: Clear and present danger 

PV system prices have already increased due to Section 201 (w/ charts) 

Sean Hannity weighs in on the Section 201 case 

5 questions for the Section 201 trade case 

 

The decline in residential solar

It’s notable that one of the other huge stories in 2017 has pretty much nothing to do with the Trump Administration. Starting in the first quarter of this year, the U.S. residential solar market began to decline, and as of Q3 has remained below the level of the previous year. This is the first time this decade that this market has slowed year-over-year for three consecutive quarters.

The slowdown was particularly notable in California, where torrential winter rains, changes to net metering and other factors created the perfect storm for rooftop solar. However, it is likely that the biggest factor nationally was not rain, or even net metering, but instead the pull-back of two of the nation’s three largest residential solar companies, Tesla/SolarCity and Vivint Solar.

With both of these companies moving away from aggressive expansion and the third-party-owned solar model, markets across the United States have suffered, and the slowdown in California and the Northeast has more than offset the expansion into new markets like Florida

Our top stories on the residential market:

Turmoil in residential solar

California market troubles bring down U.S. residential numbers during Q1 (w/ charts)

Net metering 2.0 slows down California’s residential solar market

Residential solar ownership now outpaces leasing (with charts)

 

The grid study and the NOPR

In keeping with Trump’s promise to bring back coal and the political positions of the pro-fossil fuel cronies and industry shills that he has appointed to cabinet positions, the Trump Administration had made a major move to attempt to create subsidies for the nation’s uncompetitive coal and nuclear plants through federal agencies.

This began with a study at the U.S. Department of Energy regarding the state of the grid and the role of so-called ‘baseload’ power in reliability. But perhaps in part because a draft of the study was leaked, the final version did not end up supporting the conclusion that such plants were actually needed for reliability.

This did not stop Energy Secretary Perry, who has attempted to ram a rule to bailout of coal and nuclear plants through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) has not gone exactly smoothly either, with critical voices including eight former commissioners and chairs at FERC noting that the attempt to provide compensation for 90-day supplies of fuel at coal and nuclear power plants not only addresses a problem that does not exist, but would “blow up” wholesale power markets.

In December incoming FERC Chair Kevin McIntyre has won an additional 30 days to try to come up with something like a rule to subsidize “fuel secure” generation. It remains to be seen what the ultimate outcome of this intellectually dishonest attempt to prop up dying forms of power will be.

Some of our coverage of the grid study and the NOPR:

Energy Secretary Rick Perry wants to know if solar is eroding the electricity supply

Perry orders FERC to implement subsidies for coal and nuclear plants

8 former FERC members come out against coal, nuclear bailout

Challenges to the bailouts: An interview with Jason Johns of Stoel Rives

New FERC chairman asks for extension on crafting nuke, coal bailout rule

 

The tax bill

As if the threat of tariffs and a massive bailout of coal and nuclear plants wasn’t bad enough, in November Congressional Republicans embarked on a controversial and partisan effort to rewrite to tax code.

There were multiple scares along the way for clean energy, including threats to the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind, a near-roll back of electric vehicle tax credits, and a host of other concerns. But while most of these were addressed in the House and Senate, the Senate bill introduced a new provision, the Base Erosion Anti-Abuse Tax (BEAT), that threatened to make the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) useless to many of the largest tax equity investors.

In an 11th-hour arrangemen,t the application of the BEAT provision to the ITC and PTC was significantly watered down. However, the new tax package, which is on the way to be signed by President Trump, contains a host of changes to the tax code which will affect the profitability of renewable energy projects, the value of tax credits, and clean energy finance.

Highlights of our coverage of the tax bill:

“Devastating” provision in tax bill could hobble solar, wind tax credits

The nuts and bolts of BEAT: Keith Martin on the threat to solar and wind tax credits

Final tax bill includes up to 80% offset for wind, solar tax credits

Many changes to wind and solar finance in the final tax bill

 

 

Battery and solar prices continue to fall

Had enough bad news yet? Good, because so have we – and it wasn’t all bad news this year. The last major theme for our 2017 coverage is that even with the major roadblocks for clean energy that have been produced by Trump and Congressional Republicans, prices for solar and batteries have largely continued their downward trajectory.

Reports by National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) and IHS Markit have documented the dramatic fall in both technologies, with utility-scale solar prices falling to just around $1 per watt this year, aided by the collapse in module prices. Additionally data from California shows that contract prices for large-scale solar under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard fell to an average of $29 per megawatt-hour in 2016.

And while the second half of the year system prices appear to have come back up because of scarcity pricing for modules as fallout from the Section 201 case, this appears to be a temporary phenomenon. Other aspects of system prices continue to fall, and solar remains on a long-term trajectory of price declines.

Falling prices are the core of the unstoppable market momentum of solar and battery. As we have noted before, even the president of the United States can’t stop the Energy Transition.

Our top articles on solar and battery cost declines:

NREL: U.S. fixed-tilt solar plant costs fall to $1.03/watt-DC (with charts)

Falling lithium-ion battery prices to drive rapid storage uptake

Lazard shows ongoing cost declines in solar (w/ charts)

PV system prices have already increased due to Section 201 (w/ charts)