The 3 Most Important Words in Solar

Watch stocks you care about

The single, easiest way to keep track of all the stocks that matter...

Your own personalized stock watchlist!

It's a 100% FREE Motley Fool service...

Click Here Now

Solar stocks are back in vogue, starting the week scorching hot before taking a tumble yesterday. With the future of nuclear energy in question, it may just be the right time to take another look at the feasibility of solar. After all, it must be safer than nuclear power!

But before you go buying solar stocks at random make sure you understand the three most important words in solar.

1. Cost per watt
OK, that's already three words, but you get the point. This is the headline number observers like to look at but manufacturers seem scared of sharing. Cost per watt gets to the core of how efficiently a manufacturer can produce panels.

For manufacturers who don't explicitly state cost per watt we can use margins to approximate. For example, Suntech Power (NYSE: STP  ) has a higher cost per watt than Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL  ) based on similar efficiencies and lower margins at Suntech.

But approximating cost per watt can be tricky because not all manufacturers are created equal. In our example, Suntech produces 27.8% of its own wafers, whereas Trina Solar produces 62.5% of its own wafers. This leads to Suntech having lower margins, which the company is working hard to remedy. Ideally, manufacturers will share internal cost per watt like the three examples I have below so we know exactly where they stand.

2. Efficiency
This is where the rubber meets the road. We know how much a panel costs, but efficiency will help determine what other costs we are going to incur to install the panel. Below I have a peek into how efficiency and cost per watt changes from a low efficiency panel like First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR  ) to SunPower's (Nasdaq: SPWRA  ) industry-leading efficiency. Since Chinese manufacturers make panels that are very similar, I have chosen Trina Solar to be a low-cost example (it's also one of the few Chinese manufacturers that explicitly states cost per watt).


Cost per watt

Highest efficiency panel

First Solar $0.75 11.6%
Trina Solar $1.16 16.4%
SunPower $1.71 19.5%

These aren't necessarily the actual cost of a company's highest efficiency panel since most manufacturers make multiple models, but it paints the picture of generally how cost per watt and efficiency are related.

Efficiency is important because it drives balance of system costs. These are the costs of installing a solar panel beyond the panel itself, including land, inverters, labor, wiring, etc. In general, higher efficiency leads to lower balance of system costs. To illustrate this, when comparing First Solar and SunPower we can approximate that a First Solar development will take 68% more land to install the same number of watts. Lower balance of system costs is how SunPower is able to compete with First Solar, whose cost per watt is much lower.

3. Bankability
The first two concepts are very easy to understand and can often times be observed directly on a company's website. But bankability is a different story.

Bankability measures a bank's (or other financing source's) willingness to finance a solar project based on the manufacturer's panels. If panels have a long history of performing up to expectations or projected models, bankability goes up. If the company is new or is trying some sort of new technology, there is higher risk and bankability goes down.

The safest thing an investor can do is stick with companies that have a long history of making panels and obtaining financing. SunPower may be at the top of that list after completing the first public bond issuance for a solar project. Generally, we can assume that manufacturers like JA Solar (Nasdaq: JASO  ) , First Solar, Yingli Green Energy and others who have large capacities and a history in the industry are relatively safe.

But be leery of smaller manufacturers like Ascent Solar (Nasdaq: ASTI  ) , which has a really cool technology but a pile of losses on its financial statement and no history of product sales.

A bad balance sheet can also affect bankability if creditors worry that warranties or service contracts won't be fulfilled. This Fool once even had hope for Evergreen Solar (Nasdaq: ESLR  ) , which makes panels that should be less expensive than rivals but is now drowning under debt and trying to change its business model.

If you understand how these three concepts affect a company's position in the market you're well on your way to making well-informed solar investments.

See that green plus sign next to each stock's ticker symbol? Click it to keep track of all of our Foolish insights on solar stocks by adding stocks to My Watchlist.

Fool contributor Travis Hoium is long First Solar and SunPower and has sold put options on JA Solar. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool, check out his personal stock holdings or follow his CAPS picks at TMFFlushDraw.

First Solar is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. The Fool owns shares of SunPower. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (11)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 8:32 PM, RRobertsmith wrote:

    Boeing....(YES BOEING) has a patent on the best solar was in the motely fo0l awhile ago..anyone remember that?

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 9:07 PM, RRobertsmith wrote:

    Highest efficiency panel

    39.2% ....and highest cost.....remember zero cost the 2nd and 3rd and 4th years....and zero is a good number if it is the cost your paying...

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2011, at 11:13 PM, ecdfam wrote:

    4. Location, location, location.

    As state/county/parlimentary jurisdiction grow tired of using up precious land for ugly glass panel solar fields, the ability to produce electricity on rooftops will become more important.

    Energy conversion Devices' (ticket ENER) Uni-Solar division not produces the world's highest efficiency light-weight flexible thin-film solar laminate (as currently used on ANY {curved, standing seam metal, asphalt, rubber,...} roof as well as landfill membrane caps).

    Their U/L-certified PowerShingle is scheduled to come out this summer for residential roofs to blend in with ashpalt 3-tab shingles.

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2011, at 1:39 AM, curt00 wrote:

    Additional factors should be considered, such as:

    Revenue Growth from 2009 to 2010:

    JA Solar: 211%

    Suntech: 71%

    Trina: 120%

    SunPower: 46%

    Yingli: 72%

    First Solar: 24%

    P/E (as of March 16, 2011 from Google Finance):

    JA Solar: 4.6

    Suntech: 12.8

    Trina: 7.0

    SunPower: 6.9

    Yingli: 9.7

    First Solar: 8.5

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2011, at 1:44 AM, curt00 wrote:

    The most bizarre thing about the Chinese solar stocks are:

    1. How fast they are growing.

    2. How low their P/Es are

    Is Wall Street Manipulating Solar Stocks? Read this:

Add your comment.

Compare Brokers

Fool Disclosure

Sponsored Links

Leaked: Apple's Next Smart Device
(Warning, it may shock you)
The secret is out... experts are predicting 458 million of these types of devices will be sold per year. 1 hyper-growth company stands to rake in maximum profit - and it's NOT Apple. Show me Apple's new smart gizmo!

DocumentId: 1460125, ~/Articles/ArticleHandler.aspx, 10/22/2016 4:23:07 PM

Report This Comment

Use this area to report a comment that you believe is in violation of the community guidelines. Our team will review the entry and take any appropriate action.

Sending report...

Today's Market

updated 19 hours ago Sponsored by:
DOW 18,145.71 -16.64 -0.09%
S&P 500 2,141.16 -0.18 -0.01%
NASD 5,257.40 15.57 0.30%

Create My Watchlist

Go to My Watchlist

You don't seem to be following any stocks yet!

Better investing starts with a watchlist. Now you can create a personalized watchlist and get immediate access to the personalized information you need to make successful investing decisions.

Data delayed up to 5 minutes

Related Tickers

10/21/2016 4:00 PM
FSLR $42.25 Up +0.17 +0.40%
First Solar CAPS Rating: ***
ASTID $0.00 Down +0.00 +0.00%
Ascent Solar Techn… CAPS Rating: *
ESLRQ.DL $0.02 Down +0.00 +0.00%
Evergreen Solar, I… CAPS Rating: *
JASO $6.34 Down -0.13 -2.01%
JA Solar Holdings CAPS Rating: **
SPWRA.DL $0.00 Down +0.00 +0.00%
SunPower Corporati… CAPS Rating: **
STPFQ $0.00 Down +0.00 +0.00%
Suntech Power Hold… CAPS Rating: *
TSL $10.41 Down +0.00 +0.00%
Trina Solar CAPS Rating: **