My name is James Huff. I am the CEO for abakus solar USA inc. we are a German company based in Gelsenkirchen and Cologne, where I worked as director of business development since 2007 until January of this year. Before that I founded a small company in Nashville, called south eastern alternative energy solutions. I had to leave America because I was about 5 years too early for the market and greener pastures were to be found in a more advanced market across the Atlantic. Abakus has been in the solar business since 1995 in the largest solar energy market in the world as well as offices in countries throughout Asia and Europe, as well as the first US office here in Richmond.
Needless to say, we know what we are doing, and we know what a healthy solar energy industry looks like. Here in Richmond, we operate a solar distribution facility, and have employed 10 people since our opening in April. The reason why stating the number of employees is important, is because we have added roughly one new job every month since our arrival. And we have done this in a market that is not favorable for the solar energy business. We have, instead, focused on supplying products and services to companies which are located in more favorable markets, and the majority of those goods, never see Virginian soil. That means that we have only brought jobs, investment in our facility, and payment for services in the local economy such as bankers, accountants, attorneys, logistics companies, and other service industries into Virginia.
The solar industry, unlike other industries in our economy is one of the few growing at a rapid pace when others are shrinking. The solar industry now directly employs roughly 118,000 people in the US, with market wide growth of 6.8% when jobs in the overall economy only grew by .7% and fossil fuel electric generation shed jobs at a rate of 2%, this is not including all of the jobs sustained by servicing the solar industry such as legal, accounting, engineering, logistics, and so on. That is more jobs in solar energy than the US steel industry.
Recently in the news, two solar companies have made headlines. Solyndra and Sunpower. Both of which received federal loan guarantees for roughly 1.7 billion dollars and they represent a punching bag for those who actively oppose the development of clean and sustainable electricity generation. But, having witnessed the success of the German industry in allowing market development to be the driving force behind lowering the cost of this electricity, the solar industry in America is woefully outgunned by the political power wielded by carbon based electricity producers and distributors. For some perspective on the Solyndra and Sunpower loan guarantees, this chart represents the governmental expenditure on subsidies for fossil fuels vs. solar. Although some of you may have heard that Sunpower is failing, there is no indication of such a thing happening according to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and dozens of industry and market experts. This story was ultimately manufactured. Not to mention that the solar resources available in Germany are barely equivalent to those figures in Alaska, our dimmest state.
Since the topic of discussion is meant to be about lowering the price of solar, I believe it is important to understand Moore’s law. Moore’s Law suggests that every 18 months our data storage capacity doubles. If one turned this graph on its side, it resembles that of the declining price of solar, which decreases by 20% for every doubling of manufacturing capacity. In 1976, the average price of solar was around 65 dollars a watt, in 2010, it was $1.40, and this year, the price has plummeted to nearly 1 dollar. This graph shows the curve in pricing from 1992 to 2003, showing a leveling in cost that decreases gradually. What we are experiencing today is a liquidation process due to companies fleeing the US market, in other words, they are getting out of Dodge. This is not because solar is a “failed technology”, as I recently heard a Fox news commentator state. It is because the fractured nature and complicated remuneration schemes in the American market provide little or no security for solar energy projects. Manufacturers such as BP, Solon, Evergreen, and more are either declaring bankruptcy or are leaving our shores altogether for more favorable markets, such as Europe and Asia. The predominant scheme in the US for expanding the use of solar has been to use tax breaks, accelerated depreciation for commercial entities, and rebates however without a 1603 grant in lieu of tax credit, many Americans must meet a tax burden equivalent to the credit in order to benefit from this, which eliminates a base of potential customers who may not have this tax burden annually or even over the 8 year term.
The second most popular scheme is to issue RECs, which have no predictable market value and some states, such as Virginia, do not require the utilities to purchase them and other states are blocking interstate sale of these credits. Therefore they are not stable or predictable and hinder investment in solar. No bank will loan an investor the funds required to install an investment scale solar power plant if remuneration is not secure. When my banker asks, “What are the expected cash flows?”, and my response is this… you can bet that I won’t be receiving any leverage on my capital investment. No project will be built, no materials bought or sold in this state, no new jobs created, no tax dollars collected, and no wealth generated. The rapid decrease in the cost of solar in the last year is not the result of increased capacity but rather the result of decreased market share and the off-loading of inventory by manufactures for liquidity. Without a stable marketplace for solar products the effect is a reduction in manufacturing capacity and slow crippling of the US solar industry. In order to ensure an increase in manufacturing and increased efficiencies through R&D, a stable marketplace must emerge. Basically, decreasing the cost of solar requires a market.
Before I go any further, let me be clear, solar is a successful, long lasting, job creating, wealth generating, fuel free, emission free, pollution free, low risk, grid strengthening, peak power producing technology which is profitable, cost reducing, and can be deployed in nearly any environment on the planet. We started using solar in the space program in the 1960s, and was commercially available in the US market in the 1970s. With improvements in manufacturing technologies and practices, warranties and guarantees have consistently increased in duration. The solar industry now builds products which are capable of lasting and producing up to 50 years with scheduled maintenance. Which means that anything I install today could well be there and functional when I’m dead and gone, and I’m a young guy, I’m 32 years old. Germany employs upwards of 90,000 in the solar industry in a country of only 83 million people on a space roughly the size of Texas.
Imagine what the United States could do with favorable policy conditions.
Solar projects from day one produce energy every time the sun rises until it sets. It just so happens that this has occurred roughly every 24 hours for the last 4.1 billion years. Plant and animal life have capitalized off of this since life began and have stored it in coal and oil deposits throughout the world, with an efficiency of roughly 46 billionths of a percent (using napkin math). Compare this to solar technology today, which operates at an 18 percent direct conversation rate. If energy has a value then this is the most efficient and profitable way to extract it. This process consumes no fuel, and is an effective hedge against rising fuel cost and fuel shortages. It produces zero emissions throughout its life cycle as well as reduces energy requirements for cooling during hot summer months by reducing the amount of radiated heat absorbed by buildings. It also produces no pollution in the generation of electricity. In the event of failure, only the localized system is affected. There is no danger of coal ash spillage, radiation, or harmful chemicals being released into populated areas or contaminating environmental resources. By producing energy at or near the point of consumption such as urban areas, sub-urban areas, and agricultural sites, the cost of transmission to those areas during daytime peak demand as well as the risk of brownouts and the need for new transmission lines and the increased cost of imported power from across state lines is drastically reduced. This is profitable for utilities which purchase and resell the electricity at a profit as well as cost savings garnered through greater ease in transmission of traditional centralized power sources. This summer German utility companies reported a drop in cost for peak power below the cost of off-peak demand, due to the near 18 GW of solar capacity on its grid. Peak power as we all know is the most expensive power due to highest demand. The decentralized nature of solar power fits this need perfectly. With a set price and term for renewable energy, solar investors can profit by structuring investment projects for the sale of energy. This makes private and institutional investment possible by defining predicable cash flows through which banks can lend with confidence in the secured profitability of investment solar plants. Over time the cost of each MW hour falls due to the nature of a one-time investment (no fuel and low maintenance costs). As the market matures, the infrastructure in place allows for lower cost installation and maintenance which allows for the purchase price of electricity from new projects by the utility to fall in accordance with the declining price of solar. Not only does it make financial sense but solar technology can be implemented in any environment on the globe.
Since tax incentives and RECs have proven unreliable at best. I would like to put forward a solution to both simplify and stabilize the sale of energy from renewable energy resources. The solution is simply called an REPP or renewable energy purchase price. It is a requirement that utilities purchase energy from renewable generators at a set price which is decreased over time at specific capacity intervals for each technology. This energy is then resold at a profit by the utility. In the case of solar, this will only increase the cost to end users by roughly 2 to 6 dollars a month at its highest. Over time, the increase in cost becomes a reduction. This will allow both the investors in renewable generation technology, as well as the utility to profit from the sale of this electricity. In the case of the utility, the profits are guaranteed by adding a margin to the purchased power, as well as the multiplicative benefits and cost savings through improved efficiencies.
To visualize what I’m talking about, I believe it is best to imagine the solar industry as a train, a big train, which is beautiful and shiny. And the government has helped to build this train by dumping millions of investment into building this big beautiful shiny train. The only thing is that the government did not invest in building the tracks. So when the train leaves the manufacturing plant it crashes and burns. The role of government is not to build trains, but rather to build the tracks so that private industry can build the big beautiful shiny trains. If the policy in place will reflect a position that allows investors to profit from the sale and resale of solar energy’s true commodity (electricity) then the trains will be built by private industry. Government needs only build the tracks. Governmental investment in solar companies is not the best use of government funds. Rather, expending the political capital required to ensure that the framework is laid for solar and other renewable companies to succeed by providing a profitable return for the electricity sold will provide a return many times larger.
CEO, abakus solar USA inc.