Solar companies look to batteries, financing and “soft costs” as the future

Originally published by GIGAOM 

A few years ago the biggest influence on the solar industry was the falling prices of solar cells, leading to some of the cheapest solar panels in history. But today, that solar panel price drop has slowed. Now solar companies are focusing on other ways to reduce costs and push the industry forward, including new types of solar panel financing, novel and more efficient panel designs and low-cost, next-gen batteries to pair with solar panels.
At the solar industry conference Solar Power International, which kicked off Monday in Las Vegas, expect to hear all about the latest innovations from startups and big companies that are developing these new business models and new designs.
Batteries and energy storage
For the past couple of years, batteries have taken center stage in the solar industry, and they’ve only gotten more attention in recent months thanks to Tesla’s big battery factory bet in Reno, Nevada, which will eventually churn out some batteries for the power grid. When paired with solar panels, batteries can store solar energy at night when the sun goes down, making solar systems available to provide power around the clock. However, battery systems add significant costs to the solar system.
At SPI, solar service company Sunrun announced Monday morning that it has started a pilot project to offer battery systems from OutBack Power Technologies to its solar customers. Last week, startup Stem unveiled a partnership with Kyocera Solar to offer a solar panel and battery system for commercial customers. In the early stages of this market, partnerships can help small companies compete on a larger scale, and partnerships between nimble startups and big service providers can introduce more innovative thinking.
Of course, these companies aren’t the first to make partnerships across the solar/battery divide. SolarCity works with Tesla for its batteries (Tesla CEO Elon Musk is also chairman of SolarCity). One Roof Energy has been working with battery maker Silent Power to launch products. SunPower is working with KB Homes to provide a solar-panel-and-battery combo to new homeowners in Irvine, El Dorado Hills and San Diego. And SunEdison has piloted a battery from startup Seeo.
Other grid and solar-focused battery startups are now working on the next generation of their battery chemistries. Awhile back, startup Aquion Energy switched its anode-materials blend to a higher-energy, better-performing one. Battery startup Ambri has made changes to its chemistry as well. Startup Eos recently showed off its first zinc battery installation for New York utility Con Edison.
Offering less expensive ways to finance solar panel systems is another way to reduce overall solar project costs. Last week SolarCity announced the first registered offering of solar bonds, starting with a $200 million fund. The earnings on the solar bonds are paid for by the income from monthly solar energy payments from SolarCity’s customers. SolarCity has developed a booming business by enabling customers to pay for solar power as a monthly service, instead of having to pay for solar panel installations up front.
On Monday, reinsurer PartnerRe said it plans to offer $100 million toward financing purchasing loans originated by Mosaic, the crowdfunding solar startup based in Oakland. For now, crowdfunded solar projects make up a tiny fraction of solar systems, but Mosaic has been expanding its services to other types of solar financing.
“Soft costs”
Financing is part of the “soft costs” for solar. Soft costs include everything that has to do with installing solar panels on rooftops (and large solar projects in the desert, for that matter) except for the cost of making the actual solar hardware — so it’s things like permitting, financing, taxes, marketing and customer acquisition, labor and supply chain costs. When it comes to installing solar panels on the rooftops of homes across the U.S., soft costs made up a whopping 64 percent of the total cost of the system, according to a report out late last year from the National Renewable Energy Lab (relying on data from 2012).
According to GTM Research, most of the reductions in solar costs are coming from the “balance of systems” costs, which are improvements in the design, engineering, labor and financing for rooftop solar systems. And soft costs make up a major part of the “balance of systems” costs. GTM expects the cost of installing solar power to fall by 33 percent between 2013 and 2017, and only six percent of that will come from a drop in the solar module prices.
According to the Solar Energy Industry Association’s latest report, the U.S. installed 1.13 GW of solar panels in the second quarter of 2014. That was up 21 percent over the second quarter of 2013, and represented the fourth-largest quarter for solar installations in the history of the market.