The U.S. Department of Energy announced this week $60 million in funding for scientists to develop “revolutionary research” to lower the cost of solar power systems.
Will Germany kill the goose laying the golden eggs?
Germany is understandably proud of its renewable energy sector — wind and solar power supply more than 15 percent of the country’s electricity. Its Renewable Energy Act (EEG) has fuelled its rapid growth over the past decade and been copied by more than 40 countries around the world.
But is the party over?
A new centre-right government announced plans to slash the EEG’s guaranteed feed-in tariffs (FIT) that utilities are required to pay the myriad of producers of solar energy, many of whom feed the modest amounts of solar power from their roofs into the local grid. The EEG already foresees a FIT decline of about 10 percent per year — a built-in incentive to keep overall costs falling.
Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen wants an additional 15 percent cut in April on top of the 10 percent from Jan. 1, 2010 and ahead of the next 10-percent cut on Jan. 1, 2011. In the past decade, the previous two environment ministers from the Greens party and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) worked closely with the solar industry before making changes.
Roettgen made it clear those days of compromise were over. He said he spoke to solar firms last week before proposing the cuts, but rejected their offer to a one-off mid-2010 cut of 5 percent. “This is not a compromise,” he told journalists in Berlin on Wednesday. “It’s a bullseye.” He said the cuts would save consumers about 1 billion euros a year over the next decade. Consumer groups and some industry groups had wanted deeper cuts, Roettgen noted.
Solar companies in Germany, which have until now worked closely with the government on reducing the tariffs the utilities pay to producers of green electricity, criticised the cuts which amount to about 35 percent within 13 months. They fear they will cripple the sector and kill jobs. Roettgen said he wants solar power, which now generates about 1 percent of Germany’s electricity, to be providing 4 to 5 percent by 2020 even though the support is being slashed by one-third in the course of 13 months. He portrayed the cuts as if he were doing the industry a favour.
Several leading German companies — such as SolarWorld, Q-Cells and Solon — said there were dark days ahead for the solar industry. They pointed out that prices, and support, were already falling steadily and would reach grid parity by the middle of the decade. Why, they asked, ruin a good thing? Frank Asbeck, CEO of Germany’s biggest solar company by revenue SolarWorld, called the plans unacceptable. As my colleague Christoph Steitz reported here, the cuts would cause problems for solar companies around the world.
Carsten Koernig, managing director of the BSW solar industry lobby, said “a radical cut like that will rob German companies of the foundation for business”.
Claudia Kemfert, an energy policy expert at the independent DIW economic research institute, said: “This level of 15 percent is quite problematic. It means a 25 percent cut within a few months and I consider that to be too much. It’s going to hit the small and medium sized companies very hard. It’s going to bring a lot of uncertainty into the market.”
The German Renewable Energy Association also used strong language, saying: “The radical cuts endanger the expansion of renewable energy.”
Fighting climate change is a huge investment opportunity but not through emissions trading and investors should instead put their money into renewables which will power the economy in the future, says a leading environmental scientist and cap and trade expert.
The federal stimulus bill hasn’t been a ticket to prosperity for clean energy investors.According to Environment America, a federation of state-based, citizen-funded environmental advocacy organizations, over 4 percent of the $787 billion dollar stimulus package passed in February was ear-marked for clean energy projects.Yet the Reuters Business of Green Index, a basket of 14 green stocks, has fared poorly over the last three months, down over 20 percent against the S&P 500 Index.Why isn’t the stimulus bill, which appears to be helping many stocks, not having the desired effect in the greentech and clean energy sectors?”What happens in Washington for the time being is nowhere near as relevant as you might think,” said Raymond James analyst Pavel Molchanov.He notes that green stocks are heavily dependent on the solar industry, 90 percent of which is outside the United States:”Even though there is a large array of clean tech stocks to invest in, the most attractive green stocks and the certainly the largest ones are in the solar stage. And solar has been doing quite poorly because there is quite simply an overcapacity in the global solar industry.”That has put pressure on prices, margins and earnings. Not surprisingly, solar stocks have fared poorly.Suntech Power Holdings, one of the 14 green companies selected by Reuters, had lost 13 percent of it’s value in August when it reported second quarter earnings. Shares of China’s Yingli Green Energy and U.S. panel maker SunPower Corp were down about 17 percent, and First Solar‘s stock was down nearly 15 percent in the same period.Not all of the news is cloudy, but Molchanov says it’s not time to put away the umbrella just yet.”The good news is that sentiment has gotten so negative that it probably doesn’t take much for it to start improving and expectations for earnings are generally pretty low. So that’s helping, but the overcapacity in the market is not going away in the foreseeable future.”