The US Department of Energy has issued a conditional commitment for a partial guarantee of a $344 million loan for solar PV installer SolarCity. The company will install rooftop solar PV systems on as many as 160,000 houses on US military bases. The so-called ‘SolarStrong’ project is expected create more than $1 billion in new solar PV installations and consume some 371 megawatts of solar PV modules.
The US solar sector has taken a beating in recent weeks with the bankruptcies of panel makers Evergreen Solar and Solyndra. Does this new project help any US solar maker or in any way advance US clean energy goals?
The answer to the first question is ‘maybe’. SolarCity does not manufacture any solar PV hardware — it is an installer that either sells or, more usually, leases the solar panels to homeowners and then collects monthly usage fees. The company signed a five-year deal in 2008 with First Solar Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR) for a total of 100 megawatts of First Solar’s thin-film solar panels. SolarCity won’t disclose its list of suppliers, but it has worked in the past with Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd. (NYSE: STP) and Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. Ltd. (NYSE: YGE), two of China’s lowest-cost providers of crystalline solar PV panels.
SolarCity has also used panels from US start-up Miasole to install solar systems on stores owned by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT). Japanese panel makers Kyocera Corp. (NYSE: KYO) and Sharp Corp. (OTC: SHCAY) have also provided panels to the company.
Most of the US solar installers are privately held and relatively small. The exceptions are Real Goods Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ: RSOL) and Westinghouse Solar (NASDAQ: WEST), formerly Akeena Solar, which licenses the Westinghouse name and is not affiliated with Toshiba Corp. SolarCity and Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) created a $280 million fund in June of this year to help finance residential rooftop solar projects.
USRG Renewable Finance and Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) will be the lead lenders under SolarCity’s ‘SolarStrong’ project. SolarCity expects that up to “6,000 direct job-years” will be created by this project. The company employs 1,200 people now, so that’s either five years of work for these workers or at least a few new jobs. But very likely not 6,000 new jobs.
The US armed forces are working toward generating 25% of the electricity they use from renewable power sources by 2025, and this project will help that along.
On balance this project is probably only a modest success for US solar PV makers, unless the federal guarantee carries with it a mandate for sourcing only US-manufactured panels. And that’s not likely. Job creation is modest, and progress toward US military clean energy goals is also modest. One good bit of news is that it does not look like US taxpayers will lose their money this time like they most likely lost $535 million in the Solyndra bankruptcy.
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