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This Week in Solar

By Travis Hoium – Sep 16, 2016 at 6:05PM

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A potential windfall of new projects, and Congressional questions about subsidies, highlight the week in solar.

Image source: Getty Images.

There's no such thing as a quiet week in solar, and this week was no different. Without further ado, here's what you should know about the week in the solar industry.

NRG Energy make a big bet on renewables

It's final: NRG Energy (NRG -1.73%) has been given court approval to acquire 2.1 GW of renewable energy assets from bankrupt SunEdison for $144 million. Some projects are complete and some are in progress, so this isn't a complete windfall for NRG, but it's a big step.

According to reports, at least 683 MW of solar projects in Nevada are completed and another 200 MW in Texas are construction-ready; 1.25 GW of solar and wind assets are in various stages of completion. It will likely cost over $1 billion to complete the projects, but the return on investment could still run well into double digits. If that's the case, it'll be a big win for NRG Energy and its shareholders.

Solar might be back in India

India is one of the biggest potential markets for the solar industry in the next decade, with a national goal of 100 GW of solar installations by 2020, enough to power 16.4 million homes; 40 GW of that, the government wants installed on rooftops. But most major solar companies were at risk of missing out on this growth because of "localization" rules aimed at manufacturing brought into the country.

Image source: SunPower.

The United States challenged the localization rules, and a World Trade Organization appellate body issued a report this week agreeing that the rules discriminate against outside solar manufacturers and should be reversed. India hasn't done that yet, but if it does, there's a huge market for solar companies.

Most solar in India will consist of large, ground-mounted systems, meaning a big opportunity for First Solar (FSLR -3.39%) and SunPower's (SPWR -2.07%) new P-Series product. First Solar, in particular, should have superior performance in India's desert regions where large projects have been bid out. SunPower may have an advantage if microgrids, which serve smaller communities not connected to the central grid, take shape in the country, or if the rooftop market is a focus.

No matter how you look at it, removing localization requirements in India will be good for solar installers. If we assume an average price of $1.00 per watt, a 100 GW market is worth about $100 billion in the next six years. That's big business in the world of energy, and winning even a small fraction of that will be big for solar companies.

A dark cloud over solar subsidies

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee sent a letter to seven companies, including SolarCity (SCTY.DL), Sunrun (RUN -1.17%), NextEra Energy (NEE -1.89%), and NRG Energy, asking questions about the government subsidies they received. This is in relation to the 30% federal Solar Investment Tax Credit, which solar companies use to offset the cost of building solar projects, and how they calculate it.

The problem comes when a company like SolarCity or Sunrun builds a solar system for one cost and then tells the government its "value" is a different number. You can see the problem just by looking at SolarCity's estimate that solar systems built in second-quarter 2016 will generate $3.62 in value per watt, and Sunrun finding a value of $4.61. How could that be, when the two companies use most of the same equipment and operate in the same markets? Something looks fishy, and the U.S. government wants to know if an inflated value is giving inflated subsidies.

The impact on solar companies could be bigger than they want to admit. If the government finds that 100 MW of solar systems were overvalued by $0.50 per watt, the companies may be liable for $15 million or more in incorrect subsidies once accelerated depreciation is added in.

Utilities could have abused the subsidy as well, but it's hard to tell because utility prices are fairly transparent. Unless they intentionally overvalued projects by a wide margin, I think they have less risk than an opaque residential solar market.

This is another unwanted risk for solar right now. With value creation already tight, companies can't afford to have overstated subsidies on past projects. Stay tuned to see how this ends.

Travis Hoium owns shares of First Solar and SunPower. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends SolarCity. The Motley Fool owns shares of NRG Energy. 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.

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Stocks Mentioned

First Solar Stock Quote
First Solar
$165.62 (-3.39%) $-5.81
SunPower Stock Quote
$23.63 (-2.07%) $0.50
NextEra Energy Stock Quote
NextEra Energy
$83.73 (-1.89%) $-1.61
NRG Energy Stock Quote
NRG Energy
$41.43 (-1.73%) $0.73
SolarCity Corporation Stock Quote
SolarCity Corporation
Sunrun Stock Quote
$31.32 (-1.17%) $0.37

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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