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Solar Financing — The current and future catalyst behind the booming residential solar market (Part I)

By: Scott Rhode

This is the first of a three-part blog series focused on the residential solar market looking at; 1) the history of solar technology, 2) current trends and financing mechanisms, and finally 3) overcoming market and regulatory challenges with Experian’s help.

Most people tend to think of the solar industry as a recent, and not so stable, market phenomenon.  However, the residential solar industry is still gaining traction as component prices come down. For more than two thousand years man has been trying to harness the sun’s energy and power. In fact, architects and city planners in early civilizations would also look to the sun when designing dwellings, buildings and bathhouses, so that they could capture as much of the sun’s energy to heat their homes and the water they used.  Our ancestors knew that the sun, unlike any other resource, was a consistent and powerful source of energy that fueled life.

Fast forward to the late 19th and early 20th centuries where renowned scientists in the US and across the globe started looking at ways to harness the sun’s energy to generate electricity, and the birth of the modern solar industry was here.  By the mid 1950’s, US architects were trying to incorporate the power of the sun in their designs so that heating the water and commercial office space could be done without heavy use of electricity.  One architect, Frank Bridgers, was so successful in using this technology that his building still continues to operate this way today.  In addition, many companies like Bell Labs, Western Electric, and the US Signal Corp Laboratories started to develop photovoltaic cells that power the panels that we use today.

These early cells, operating at 7-11% efficiency (This is the measurement of how efficient the cell is at converting solar radiation to electricity), gave life to solar powered electronics, lights, and panels used by the burgeoning space program to power satellites orbiting earth.  In reaction to the growing possibilities and the broader oil crisis in the late 1970’s, the US Department of Energy created what would later become the National Renewable Energy Laboratory enabling the federal government to use its resources to help grow the industry and foster technological innovations to improve cell efficiency.

Throughout the 1980’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s, the industry starts to take root with utilities and mainstream energy providers as they look to the sun to diversify their energy sources away from coal, gas, and oil.  This adoption leads to a push by the US Department of Energy to have “One million Solar Roofs” in the US so that individual home owners can realize the benefits of going solar.  Soon, retailers like Home Depot started selling panels in their stores for customers to install themselves for “off-grid” properties or other uses.  While this allowed a homeowner to use solar, costs are still so high that solar is only available to a select few and, as a result, not competitive with traditional methods of producing energy.

In order to incent homeowners to invest in solar, the US Government created the Solar Investment Tax Credit in 2005.  This tax credit allows homeowners to get a credit of 30% of the fair market value of the system they have installed on their roof.  As a result of this and local incentives from municipalities and utility companies, residential solar installations have grown 1,600% over the last ten years, representing an annual CAGR of 76%.  In fact, through the first half of 2014, 53% of all new electric capacity is from solar, making it the fastest growing source of energy in the market.*

Since this tax incentive is unlikely to be renewed after it expires, the industry set out to solve the cost issue in order to manufacture and produce highly efficient and durable panels for individual Consumers that could bring the costs to produce down to parity with traditional power.  In this endeavor, the manufactures have poured significant resources into research and development, pushed their manufacturing processes towards ever higher levels of efficiency, and used the latest technology to significantly reduce costs to produce panels that now range from 18-23% cell efficiency.  Since 2010 the average price of a panel has come down by 64% and the industry continues to push to find ways to make solar more affordable.  This is especially important given that the tax credit expires on December 31st of 2016.

In the next blog in the series, I will talk about solar financing and the current industry trends.  Financing, as you would expect, has been and will continue to be critical to growth in this space so that more homeowners can afford to move to solar as their primary energy source.  As such, the methods used to acquire, originate, and serve these customers must evolve in order for the industry to sustain the impressive growth rates mentioned earlier in this blog.

Solar Financing – The current and future catalyst behind the booming residential solar market (Part II)