U.S. solar installation outlook brightens on falling costs: report

(Reuters) - The U.S. solar energy industry lifted its installation outlook for this year and beyond thanks to robust demand for large-scale projects by utilities buying the clean energy source for its low cost, according to a report published on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: Solar electric panels are shown installed on the roof of the Hanover Olympic building, the first building to offer individual solar-powered net-zero apartments in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

In 2019, installations are expected to be up 25 percent from 2018 to 13.3 gigawatts, the report from the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie said. The groups’ previous forecast called for 14 percent growth this year.

The change is primarily due to late project announcements in Texas, the report said.

The rosy outlook marks an about-face from 2018, when installations fell 2 percent after U.S. President Donald Trump slapped 30 percent tariffs on overseas-made solar panels.

Since then, global panel prices have fallen dramatically due to an oversupply of panels in top producer China, which cut incentives for installations there. Between the first quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, monocrystalline module prices fell 30 percent, according to the report, effectively canceling out the U.S. tariffs.

Looking ahead, the industry lifted its five-year outlook by 5.1 GW, or about 9 percent, mostly due to new procurement by utilities in Florida including Nextera Energy Inc’s FPL and Duke Energy Corp.

Utilities are seeking to capture generous tax credits for installations that will begin to step down next year. The credit currently stands at 30 percent but will gradually drop to a permanent 10 percent in 2022.

Florida is expected to be the top state for utility-scale solar over the next six years, the report said, marking a major shift away from the industry’s historical center of power, California.

Wood Mackenzie senior analyst Austin Perea said the shift was notable because Florida lacks the strong policy support for renewable energy that exists in California. Utilities in Florida, therefore, are buying solar because it is cheap compared with fossil fuel alternatives like natural gas and coal.

“We are seeing utility-scale solar becoming much, much more cost competitive,” Perea said in an interview.

In the first quarter of 2019, the United States installed 2.7 GW of solar, up 10 percent from a year ago. Solar accounted for more than half of all new energy capacity additions during the quarter, the report said.

The residential solar market rose 5 percent during the quarter to 600 megawatts. Utility-scale installations were 1.6 GW, while non-residential systems reached 438 MW.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Leslie Adler