Energy Business

Alternative Energy Watch: Solar to Reach Grid Parity in 2013; Nuclear Plant to Close in Japan, New Licenses on Track in US; UN Report Predicts Renewable Surge (SPWRA, JASO, AONE, CLNE, SO, SHAW)

Jon C. Ogg

Today’s alternative energy news reports on a prediction that the cost of solar power generation will reach parity with other fuels by 2013. A nuclear power plant in Japan will close while two new nuclear plants in the US could get licensed by the end of this year. Finally, a United Nations panel report suggests that renewable sources could expand by 3 to 20 times by 2050.

Check out our earnings preview on alt-energy companies that are reporting earnings this week. These include SunPower Corp. (NASDAQ: SPWRA), JA Solar Holdings Co., Ltd. (NASDAQ: JASO), A123 Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ: AONE), and Clean Energy Fuels Corp. (NASDAQ: CLNE), among others.

The chairman of Taiwanese solar wafer maker Eversol acknowledges that the market for solar PV will be challenging for the next couple of years, but he also believes that solar will achieve grid parity in six countries by 2013. He also believes that no subsidies will be needed to reach this goal, but that national renewable portfolio standards will do the trick. Grid parity means that the cost of solar generation will equal the cost of coal- or gas-fired generation or even hydropower generation.

That seems awfully aggressive. Right now solar PV generation costs about $0.22/kWh, compared with traditional generation costs of about $0.08/kWh. About half the cost of solar PV is attributed to what are called “balance of systems” cost, that is all the hardware, labor, and assembly needed to get the solar PV module installed. While competition and improved technology will ultimately drive down the solar PV module cost, much greater savings are possible by wringing out the balance of systems costs. A report from the Rocky Mountain Institute notes that the downward trajectory of module costs is greater than that of balance of systems costs, and that needs to change in order for small-scale solar projects to compete with grid electricity.

Japanese electricity company Chubu Electric Power has announced that it plans to close two of its reactors because they are especially vulnerable to major earthquakes. The two plants generate about 2,500 megawatts. A third reactor at the same location is already off-line for maintenance. Following these shutdowns, just 37% of Japan’s nuclear generation capacity will be available of the nearly 50,000 megawatts of the country’s capacity.

In the US, four new nuclear reactors are in line for permits and licenses by the end of 2011. Southern Co. (NYSE: SO) and Scana Corp. (NYSE: SCG) are both in line for combined construction permits and operating licenses from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The companies want to install new 1,150-megawatt reactors at Southern’s site in Georgia and Scana’s plant in South Carolina. The reactors will be a design from Westinghouse, which is owned by Toshiba Corp. and Shaw Group Inc. (NYSE: SHAW).

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a summary of a report on renewable energy and climate change which examines 164 scenarios.  Of the 12.9% of energy currently generated by renewable fuels, some 80% of that is wood burning for cooking and heat. Wind power generates about 0.2% of global electricity, and solar energy generates about 0.1%. Hydropower generates 2.3%.

The IPCC believes about 20% of global electricity could be generated by renewable fuels by 2050, and, in the best case, up to 80% could be generated by renewable fuels. The potential is greatest for solar and nuclear generation.

Paul Ausick