RE+ 2023: Ushering in new era of U.S. clean energy


RE+ 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada, among the largest clean energy events in North America, kicked off with a rousing pep rally that celebrated the unprecedented milestones achieved by the industry in just the past year.

In opening remarks, Senator Jon Ossoff gave commendations to panel manufacturer Qcells for its “steadfast investment in and belief in Georgia,” the Senator’s home state and host to a new $2.5 billion vertical solar ingot-to-module factory. Ossoff noted it has been known for decades that “we’re destroying our only habitat” while allowing American manufacturing infrastructure to crumble. By contrast to this erosion of U.S. manufacturing, Ossoff argued, the IRA and other legislation has been transformative on a number fronts.

“We passed the most significant U.S. infrastructure plan since the Eisenhower administration… the most significant investment in combat and climate change in the history of humanity, right here in the United States.”

Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, then stepped to the microphone, heralding the “new era of American energy. As a result of the IRA, she said the United States solar and solar industry will add $565 billion to our economy over the next decade while creating another half a million jobs along the way.

Ross Hopper had four key points, with action items.

  1. Solar is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the world, setting records nearly every quarter. And those numbers are only going to increase, she said. With such quick growth comes growing pains, she added, noting that our supply chain is not yet where it needs to be. “So, it’s critically important to look for smart solutions to mitigate any challenges that would slow our momentum.”  
  2. With great power comes great responsibility to get things right. She said that if we reach our 2030 goals, more than 20 million U.S. homes will have solar energy, so it is critical that we invest in consumer education resources and establish national standards that will ensure the safe and efficient installation of all solar systems.
  3. Solar is leading the way and delivering affordable reliable homegrown energy. Since passage of the IRA, more than 69 companies have announced plans to manufacture in the U.S. And if all of those facilities are built, by 2026, they could potentially meet 250% of our nation’s current demand for solar, she said, adding “Who would have thought we’d be talking about exporting?” 
  4. Solar can and should lift everyone up. Our industry is under a microscope from state and local officials, to landowners, to your next-door neighbor, she said. It’s our job to establish policies that benefit all of us, and to fight back hard against those that do not. She noted that one step SEIA is taking is to create a standardized tool for tracking supply chain, “so we can deal with the ethical labor concerns in our supply chain”. It also means doubling down on educating consumers and policymakers on longer term challenges such as PV recycling and interconnection challenges, to make sure that we have that incredibly strong foundation for solar and storage for generations to come. 

Ross Hopper concluded with:

 Welcome to the new era of affordable, abundant and homegrown energies. Now let’s get to work.

Coming to America

With nearly 70 companies already expected to set up solar manufacturing in the U.S., several more announced during RE+ 2023 plans or enhancements to plans. The following offers a look at just a few of those announcements:

Trina Solar announced it is investing more than $200 million in property and equipment for a manufacturing facility in Wilmer, Texas. The facility will produce 5 GW of Vertex solar modules using 210 mm large size wafers, with production expected to begin in 2024. Trina reports that it will source polysilicon from the U.S. and Europe.

SEG Solar, maker of TOPCon solar modules, announced that it is setting up a module manufacturing facility in Houston with plans for production to begin in March 2024. Future plans include manufacturing both cell and ingots in the U.S.

Kinematics, a specialist in intelligent motion control systems used in solar trackers announced not only a new product–the Kinematics ONE—an all-in-one controller and actuator solution, but that it will be setting up manufacturing in the U.S.

LG Energy Solution announced that it will produce 16 GWh of batteries in a new manufacturing facility to be located in Queen Creek, Arizona, with production expected to start in 2026. Furthermore, the company stated that it has undertaken a major initiative to manufacture the entire battery supply chain in the U.S., making its products IRA-compliant. The company said it is also considering further expansion depending on demand and market conditions.

Heliene, a solar module maker from Canada, opened a 500 MW manufacturing facility in Mountain Iron, Minnesota in 2022. In August the company announced that Nexamp ordered 1.5 GW of modules from Heliene, and now the company is announcing the opening of an additional 500 MW plant at its existing facility in Minnesota. 

Distributed solar weathering storm, leaning on storage

Pairing a rooftop solar array with batteries is increasingly the strategy of successful businesses. This shift was evidenced by the multitude of new home batteries and hybrid inverters on display at RE+ this year. Battery sellers now lean on the ability of the device to enable “self-consumption,” ensuring the homeowner uses its solar production, rather than selling it to the utility company for pennies on the dollar.

In an EnergySage survey, nearly 40% of consumers reported self-supply as a reason for getting a storage quote, up from less than 20% in 2022. Backup power for outages and savings on utility rates were also listed as top reasons for including energy storage in a quote.

Batteries drive up the overall sticker price for a residential solar project, but installers remain optimistic that leveraging the additional benefits of energy storage will allow the bruised sector to keep growing. EnergySage said the average estimated payback period for residential solar is 8.3 years, averaging 10.4 kW. In other nations, rooftop solar markets have survived and even thrived with much longer estimated payback periods. As the U.S. moves along the technology adoption curve and more consumers are comfortable and interested in solar, installation growth is expected to persist.

“While the first half of 2023 was tumultuous at times for the solar and storage industries in the U.S., we remain optimistic: solar and storage have proven to be resilient in the past, surviving–and even excelling–irrespective of expiring tax credits and incentives, changing net metering policies, shifting tariffs, supply chain issues, and labor shortages,” said Vikram Aggarwal, chief executive officer and founder, EnergySage.

Residential solar had a record 1.8 GW of installations in Q2 2023 as Californians rushed to secure more lucrative export compensation rates under net energy metering (NEM) 2.0, which transitioned to NEM 3.0 in April. Wood Mackenzie said it expects the installation surge to continue through Q3, beginning to taper off in Q4.

Uncertainties abound

While the headline figures and the announcements make for encouraging reading, there are persistent uncertainties regarding the buildout of American clean technology manufacturing. 

Short-term market conditions are less-than-ideal for new market entrants and getting worse. PV cell and module oversupply is the prevailing dynamic and while price declines are somewhat slower in being passed onto the U.S. market, it is occurring. 

Investment bank Roth noted in one of its Solar Snapshot notes during RE+ that PV module pricing as low as $0.25/Wp was confirmed by one tier-1 US supplier. While this remains above both European and Chinese spot module pricing, it represents a sizable decline. 

Battery energy storage products are also getting cheaper. Roth confirmed pricing at-or-below $200/kWh, which is well down from $350/kWh seen “not long ago.”

There is also some skepticism regarding the IRA and whether it will be able to deliver the long-term support required to manufacturers – particularly given the global oversupply market dynamic. This presents a challenge to manufacturers as to how they can establish facilities that could potentially be competitive without subsidies. 

In terms of technology, remaining competitive requires adopting technology that is the cutting edge of both cost and performance. TOPCon appears to be the dominant technology, according to equipment supplier reports at RE+, although one prospective U.S. manufacturer is placing requests for mono PERC production lines. Perovskites remain only a distant priority on manufacturers roadmaps. 

Uncertainty was also commonplace among attendees at RE+ – particularly when it came to tradeshow floor logistics. Many reported experiencing difficulties in navigating the trade show floor, with the booth numbering system and signage anything but clear. 

This confusion was further hampered by a lack of on-site wifi on day one of the event. Rumors were that the main venue, the Venetian convention center, had demanded an eye-watering $50/user for the wifi to be switched on. The final price paid for the crucial navigational tool wasn’t disclosed, but thankfully there was wifi-for-all on the second and third day of the event.

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