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As a customer, its important to understand the process by which solar panels get from manufacturers to end users to ensure you’re getting a good deal.  In general, most solar panel manufacturers are big companies who produce in very large quantities. This means they generally prefer to sell to only a few large distributors in high volumes rather than have lots of smaller customers. This makes their sales process easier since managing many customers is very small time-consuming and costly.  The large distributors then sell to either smaller distributors or to installation companies.  The distributors aim to provide all the necessary components for installers, allowing them to buy in small quantities and providing technical support.

Examples of well known solar distributors in the UK are Dulas, Segen, Solar Century and Waxman.  Because the UK solar industry is so small and so new however, these UK wholesalers are very small compared to their European counterparts in Germany, Spain and France.  One of the biggest solar distributors in Germany, IBC Solar, will sell 500MW of solar equipment this year.  This compares to a total expected UK market size this year of 60MW! So IBC Solar sells nearly 10 times the total UK market, and is just one company!

Unsurprisingly, since the UK is now seen as an interesting emerging market in the solar industry, many of these large European distributors are moving over here.  I spoke to one last week that is investing 200 thousand pounds this year to set up a warehouse and employ a 5 person team to address the UK market. This is good news for UK installers because they will now have access to pricing that was only previously available to their counterparts in mainland Europe.  The UK wholesalers on the other hand may struggle to compete with such large competitors.

Competition is coming from all sides however, and there are now solar panel manufacturers who are moving downstream and becoming more like wholesalers. It is now possible for smaller installers to buy directly from a few of the European manufacturers, thereby bypassing the wholesalers and their margins.  To withstand this competition the big European wholesalers are trying to gain advantage by developing an array of advanced support services for wholesalers to win them over.  This includes things like credit lines, training and design software.

It is unclear whether these features will suffice since there is also competition from the big in-house installers.  In the US there is a very large installation firm called SolarCity which is going head to head with the wholesalers for marketshare, but does all installations using its own in-house team.  This has advantages in-terms of pricing and quality of service – there are no middlemen and they can guarantee the end to end service – the drawback is that growth is capital intensive and slow.

The market is evolving so rapidly it remains to be seen which business model will win out in the long run, what is clear is that there will be a lot of movement in the market – all of which is good for customers since it means prices will fall and customer service will improve.  So when choosing a solar panel system, try to find out where the installer buys their solar panels from, not just who the manufacturer is.  This will help you tell if you are getting a good deal or not.

Jeff Siegel, a top renewable energy investor recently took time out from his very busy schedule to grant an interview with Total Solar Energy (TSE).

If you don’t know Jeff, he runs the newsletter Green Chip Stocks, an independent investment research service that focuses primarily on renewable energy and organic & natural food markets.

TSE: Hi Jeff. Thanks for your time. Can you tell me when you first got started in solar stocks?

Jeff: I had actually been an advocate of solar energy ever since I did a high-school project on it back in 1987. I just found it so fascinating that we could power our homes and our lights and our appliances with these little devices. And I found it frustrating that more attention wasn’t being paid to it.

My interest in solar never waned, and as I started working in the world of finance, I made it a point to focus on investment opportunities that would not only pay off for investors – but for the global community as well.

TSE: Given the current economic and volatile stock market situation, would it be wise to invest in solar stocks right now?

Jeff: Well, with any investment, there is always risk. That includes renewable energy. Yes, the future of solar is very bright. Going forward, solar will be a significant piece of our new energy economy. But at the end of the day, any time you invest, you are taking on some risk.

That being said, I think at this time, a lot of quality solar stocks are undervalued. Some of this is because of the euro (so many solar manufacturers are heavily exposed to the euro), some of this is because of the broader market pulling these stocks down, and some of it is because there are a lot of people that are counting solar out because of the German feed-in tariff cut. The latter makes no sense. The future of solar is NOT in Europe, but rather the U.S. and China.

I think the solar market will still struggle this year, but once we have some more clarification on China and U.S. solar support, we’re going to see the launch of one of the biggest solar bull markets ever. So those in it for the long haul, I’ve been recommending picking up some of the stronger solar stocks on those big dips. We are, however, going to have to exercise a little patience.

TSE: How would you evaluate the year 2010 for the solar industry up to now?

Jeff: Lots of irrational thinking this year. Again, there’s too much focus on Europe. Aside from a slide in the euro, long-term investors know that the payoff will come from the U.S. and China market. But until we stop focusing on tariff cuts and the misconception that there’s an oversupply of product (which is absolutely false), then the market will be quite shaky. We’ve seen that this year, and I think we’ll probably continue to see this.

TSE: Where and when to do you expect to see parity with fossil fuels? And what effect will this have on solar stocks?

Jeff: You could actually make the case that they already are. Assuming of course, you strip ALL subsidies for fossil fuels, and take into account the liquidation of natural capital associated with the production, distribution and consumption of fossil fuels.

In other words, if utilities that operated coal-fired power plants had to pay for carbon, had to pay for mercury pollution and had to pay for any other damage done to ecosystem services (things like the regulation of climate, cycling of nutrients and water, pest control, etc), solar would be significantly cheaper than coal. But what we do is use a baseline for energy costs that are simply incorrect.

Back to the real world, however, where we continue to subsidize fossil fuels and turn a blind eye to the trillions of dollars of damage done to our natural capital every year – I imagine we could see grid parity within 10 years in most parts of the world where there is a strong solar resource.

TSE: What are the major threats to the growth of the solar industry at the moment.

Jeff: Lack of leadership and support. I absolutely hate the idea of subsidizing anything. But the only way solar can compete is for it to get the same generous subsidies that the fossil fuel industries have received for years. And we need to end the debate with the naysayers.

The technology exists, the proof exists, the data is conclusive – we can power a significant portion of our world with solar. I no longer even entertain those who want to continue throwing up roadblocks. They are no more than minor bumps that I’m happy to roll over. This is going to happen. You can either be part of the solution, or you can step aside.

TSE: Do you see the UK feed-in tariff having the same effect on share prices as it did when it was introduced in Germany?

Jeff: Hard to say. Every government operates differently. Spain had a great plan, but its execution was horrible. These tariffs have to be monitored and phased out sooner than later. Otherwise, you create a bubble that’s bad for everyone.

TSE: Do you feel the US would benefit from a nationwide feed in tariff?

Jeff: Not necessarily. I think this needs to be done on a regional basis. An FIT in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Utah – these would be great because you have such a strong solar resource in these states. But if you try to force a FIT for the whole country, you’ll get a lot of backlash, and in some areas, it probably won’t be nearly as effective.

TSE: How do you think the solar industry will look in 5 years?

Jeff: I think the leading solar companies today will be some of the biggest corporations in the world. I think the technology will be much more advanced, production costs will decrease and there will be more policy support. The costs for consumers will be much less, and I think we’ll see a lot of companies offering solar leasing programs.

TSE: Once again Jeff, thanks for your time. I certainly hope you are right.

Many Thanks To Total Solar Energy

Solarbuzz, the market research group which focuses on solar photovoltaic (pv) has released its UK pv market 2010 report and highlights strong growth potential for the year ahead. Indicating the link between the market and the feed-in tariff legislation, Solarbuzz predict that 2011 will see a surge in solar pv installation as investors look to tap into the government’s tariff scheme.

With a focus on such factors as market segmentation, market size and tariff rates the report has highlighted the continuing growth of the infant solar pv market in the UK. Alan Turner of Solarbuzz said,

“The early entrance of big name brands are helping to lend public confidence to what is generally a poorly understood renewable energy source in the UK,”

The Solarbuzz market report has highlighted the following trends for solar pv:

  • The south east accounts for 45 per cent of residential solar pv installations in the US
  • 2011 solar pv figures will be hugely impacted by emerging agricultural and industrial projects
  • Big name brands entering the solar pv market will easily meet the growing demand for solar installations

Greece has recently gone through the greatest financial crisis to affect a member of the Eurozone since the introduction of the single currency ten years ago. With raging unemployment exacerbated by huge cut-backs in public sector spending, the Athens government spent the first quarter of 2010 faced by riots in the streets, a result of the financial crisis which is hitting the Greeks harder than anybody.

However, plans are afoot to revitalise the stricken Greek economy with the announcement yesterday that 12 billion euros will be invested in green projects in an attempt to create jobs in new renewable industries. In a press release issued by the Greek government, Tina Birbili the Environment Minister said,

“The ministry hopes the programme will decisively contribute to face recession and lead to dynamic economic growth”

Birbili believes that renewable projects could attract around 32 billion euros of investment from around the world creating up to 192,000 jobs. This will at least come as a glimpse of light in a country where unemployment is steadily on the rise and national debt is at an all time high. The EU bailout, funded largely by Germany expires in 2 years, by which point Greece will be hoping that the economy is back on track.

Both Gordon Brown and Barack Obama have been keen exponents of renewable energy as a means of kick-starting the struggling economies of the UK and US respectively. Sound bites such as ‘Green New Deal’ have regularly appeared in the press both sides of the Atlantic in a reference to the government projects of the 1930’s designed to boost recovery after the Great depression. It seems that Greece is going to follow this lead with a number of projects now in the pipeline.

Certainly, with Greece already falling behind other southern European countries with regards to its renewable energy uptake, the investment could provide the vital impetus needed to get the renewable energy industry in Greece on its feet. With targets of generating 40 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, they have their work cut out.