The falling cost of solar panel production in the United States is giving solar innovators financial leeway to add technologies and expand into new markets, industry leaders say, enabling them to meet growing demand.
"As the U.S. solar market continues to mature and grow, it is vital for every company to find a competitive edge … and diversification is increasingly part of the business model," Rhone Resch, president and CEO of (SEIA), told reporters this week on a conference call.
For , adding solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity to its existing portfolio of utility-scale concentrating solar power (CSP) has allowed the firm to expand beyond the U.S. Southwest, where the bulk of its activity has been thus far.
The Santa Monica, Calif.-based developer teamed up with San Francisco's GCL Solar Energy last fall in a to develop, build and operate up to 400 megawatts in PV facilities across the country.
"Several years ago, SolarReserve realized that numerous types of technologies are going to be deployed in the U.S. for solar energy," said Tom Georgis, the company's senior vice president of development. "As a developer, we took a look at the market conditions, the price of various technologies and made a strategic decision to diversify and expand our development portfolio to include PV products."
Resch said that a mix of strong federal programs, such as the U.S. Department of Energy's loan guarantee program and investment tax credits plus higher technology efficiency, allowed the cost of PV solar systems to drop 20 percent last year.
Lower PV prices will help the domestic solar market double from 1,000 megawatts of new solar capacity in 2010 to 2,000 megawatts later this year, he said. That number could double again in 2012, if the DOE's 1603 tax grant program is extended beyond its deadline this fall.
SolarReserve has more than 3,000 megawatts of CSP projects in various stages of development. Its 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy project on federal lands in Nevada just received a conditional offer of $737 million in loan guarantees from the DOE last week.
The 150-megawatt Rice Solar Energy Project near Blythe, Calif. — which would produce enough solar power for 68,000 homes annually — is also in the running for a loan guarantee.
SolarReserve has not disclosed the price tags of the projects, but CSP systems, also known as solar thermal, generally cost up to $1 billion to bring online.
The developer's solar thermal technology requires the Southwest's intense levels of solar radiation to reflect sunlight off a field of mirrors directed at a central receiver atop a tall tower.
As the receiver heats up, a fluid made from salt compounds runs through a boiler-like system that captures the heated liquid. The thermal tower can store the heated fluid during the day and run liquid through a heat engine at night to turn a generator and make electricity.
SolarReserve has no plans to slow down its CSP development, but the addition of PV solar to its profile can help the firm move beyond solar thermal's geographic restrictions and to nab a share of the growing global solar market, Georgis said.
'A Healthy Mix'
"SolarReserve's philosophy and approach is that there is plenty of opportunity for both solar thermal and PV, and we think from a diversification standpoint that there needs to be a healthy mix" of both, he added.
has echoed that sentiment at its $125 million Albuquerque solar manufacturing facility, where polycrystalline PV modules are made alongside receiver tubes for CPS systems.
"Schott has looked at the full spectrum of solar products, and being a component supplier, we thought there was opportunity ... in both solar thermal and PV electricity generation," Jim Stein, Schott's vice president of government affairs, told reporters.
"We have hedged our bets across the spectrum."