Congress sets stage for solar boom
Article as it appeared on Fortune CNN
October 03, 2008
By Todd Woody | Writer
After months of failed attempts in Congress to extend crucial renewable energy tax credits, the end-game came with lightning speed Friday afternoon: The House of Representatives passed the green incentives attached to the financial bailout package approved by the Senate Wednesday night and President Bush promptly signed the legislation into law.
There were goodies for wind, geothermal and alternative fuels, but the big winner by far was the solar industry.
“It feels like we should be popping the champagne,” said a Silicon Valley solar exec Green Wombat met for lunch minutes after Bush put pen to paper.
That it took the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression to save billions of dollars of renewable projects in the pipeline for the sake of political expediency does not bode well for a national alternative energy policy. But the bottom line is that the legislation passed Friday sets the stage for a potential solar boom.
- The 30% solar investment tax credit has been extended to 2016, giving solar startups, utilities and financiers the certainty they need for the years’ long slog it takes to get large-scale power plants and other projects online. The extension is particularly important to those Big Solar projects that need to arrange project financing in the next year or so.
- The $2,000 tax credit limit for residential solar systems has been lifted, meaning that homeowners can get a 30% tax credit on the solar panels they install after Dec. 31. That will save a bundle - especially for those who live in states with generous state rebates - and goose demand for solar panel makers and installers like SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR). (If you buy a $24,000 3-kilowatt solar array in California - big enough to power the average home - you can claim a $7,200 federal tax credit. Add in the state solar rebate and the cost of the system is cut in half.)
- Utilities like PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and FPL (FPL) can now themselves claim the 30% investment tax credit for large-scale solar power projects. That should encourage those well-capitalized utilities to build their own solar power plants rather than just sign power purchase agreements with startups like Ausra and BrightSource Energy.
“The brakes are off,” says Danny Kennedy, co-founder of Sungevity, a Berkeley, Calif., solar installer that uses imaging technology to remotely size and design solar arrays. “In just six months since our launch we’ve sold about a hundred systems. With an uncapped tax credit for homeowners going solar, we expect business to boom.”
While elated sound bites from solar executives have been flooding the inbox all afternoon - along with invites to celebratory after-work drinks - solar stocks took a drubbing (along with the rest of the still-spooked market) after initially soaring on the news.
SunPower ended the trading day down 5% while First Solar shares dropped 8%. The bright spot was China’s Suntech (STP), which on Thursday announced a joint venture with financier MMA Renewable Ventures to build solar power plants as well as the acquisition of California-based solar panel installer EI Solutions.
Congress didn’t treat the wind industry so generously. The production tax credit for generating renewable energy was extended by just one year, guaranteeing the industry’s will continue to live year by year (at least through 2009). But given that 30% of all new power generation built in the United States in 2007 was wind, and that the amount of wind power installed by the end of 2008 is expected to rise 60% over the record set last year, the wind biz should do just fine.
But Congress did give a break to those who buy small-scale wind turbines. Systems under 100 kilowatts qualify for a 30% tax credit up to $4,000. Homeowners get a $1,000 tax credit for each kilowatt of wind they install, though the credit is capped at $4,000.
“This is a huge breakthrough for small wind,” says Scott Weinbrandt, president of Helix Wind, a San Diego-based manufacturer of 2-and-4-kilowatt turbines.