The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to unfold and it has undoubtedly affected the renewable energy market. China, where many researchers say the virus originated, is by far the leading global producer of clean energy technologies, including solar panels and batteries. Many supply chains are just starting to recover after months of having projects and deliveries on hold.
While the demand for many building products has slowed in the wake of COVID-19, the demand for solar is actually on the rise as homeowners try to offset their energy use as more people shelter-in-place and work from home. A recent Harris Poll shows a 13% increase in people who are now considering solar since the onset of COVID-19. South Korean electronics giant, LG, reports that from March to April, quotes for solar systems rose 44% month-over-month. They also reported a 50% year-over-year increase in web traffic related to its solar offerings.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), solar accounted for 40% of all new electric generating capacity added to the U.S. energy grid in 2019 – more than any other energy source and the highest share in the industry’s history. While 2020 is full of unknowns, many factors bode well for rooftop solar.
Better Value, Better Technology
Over the past decade, no other electricity generation technology has able to keep up with solar in terms of cost reduction and performance improvement. By every measure, solar panels have gotten more efficient and cheaper to produce, giving coal, natural gas and even wind energy a run for its money.
According to Greentech Media, solar is outperforming other energy technologies in the marketplace in several ways:
- Multi-silicon solar module prices experience a 90-percent price reduction, from more than $2 per watt in the early 2010s to just around $0.20 per watt in Q3 2019 – helping drive the global expansion of rooftop solar.
- Higher-efficiency mono silicon-based modules are replacing multi silicon modules to become the predominant module type. Today, consumers can expect at least 345 watts at one-tenth of the cost of 2010 multi-silicon modules.
Global polysilicon production capacity more than quadrupled over the past decade, while the average price of polysilicon, a primary component solar modules, declined from more than $80 a kilogram in 2010 to just $8.40 in 2019.
Thanks to these numbers, annual global solar installations saw a six-fold increase over past decade, from 16 gigawatts in 2010 to 105 gigawatts in 2019. This momentum is likely to carry into the 2020s, despite current economic factors.
Increasing Popularity of Building-Integrated Photovoltaics
Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) — in which solar conducting materials are used to replace the roof, façade or other parts of the building envelope — have been around since the early 2000s. Cost used to be an inhibiting factor, but a steady decrease in materials costs, new color options, and an increasing BIPV’s potential to facilitate net-zero building have brought it very much into the spotlight. The global market for BIPV is projected to grow exponentially (as much as $26 billion) by 2022.
Since skyscrapers have so much exposed surface area, there has always been a strong commercial business case for BIPV. The low cost of solar, however, has made BIPV accessible to the average consumer. Building product manufacturers that specialize in roofing have come out with a number of reasonably priced solar shingle products, which replace existing asphalt shingles or concrete tiles with a low-profile, photovoltaic product that sits flush with their roof line.
This comes with a couple of big advantages. One, it allows homeowners who might be interested in solar to potentially save money on roofing costs, as solar shingles are installed in place of, rather than on top of, existing shingles or tiles. Two, it lets the market reach a segment of customers who don’t care for the aesthetics of a traditional rack-mounted solar system and may not consider solar without another option.
The increasing popularity of BIPV systems has also brought the worlds of roofing manufacturing and solar installation closer together. For many years, solar installers and roofing contractors worked in different silos, but contractors are starting to cross train in both disciplines due to lower barriers of entry. At the same time, building product companies that specialize in roofing are beginning to partner with or develop their own solar roofing products. As such, solar installers will likely benefit from the resources and supply chains of long-established manufacturing companies.
Better Data and Less Risk
The implied energy savings of solar have arguably driven residential solar for the past decade. In the past, however, it was difficult for homeowners to wrap their head around the long-term savings and justify the upfront costs. Several companies are now harvesting the power of data to give individual consumers accurate information about how solar energy benefits them, as well as removing many of the financial barriers.
Companies like Zillow are doing more to help homeowners understand the value of rooftop solar. Recently, the company applied the Sun Number™ metric to 84 million homes in its database. The Sun Number gives homeowners and potential buyers an understanding of their home’s rooftop solar and energy-savings potential based on the pitch, orientation and size of the home’s roof plane, as well as the average number of sunny days the location experiences.
Companies like Span and Sense have created newer electrical panels and sensors that provide homeowners with more information about and control of their electrical use, as well as automation settings that allow solar panels to deliver energy more efficiently. The advent of solar leasing, pioneered by SolarCity (now a subsidiary of Tesla), has made rooftop solar a fairly risk-free proposition for homeowners. Lower upfront costs and the rise of solar financing companies like Mosaic have made solar ownership (as opposed to leasing) a better value proposition for the homeowner.
With higher quality, more options, and better data, rooftop solar is becoming an option that many homeowners and businesses can finally wrap their head around. Despite current events, the momentum behind rooftop solar is hard to deny and will have an impact on the renewables market in the months and years to come.