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This Week in Solar

By Travis Hoium – Apr 22, 2017 at 9:22AM

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Tesla introduces an app update, a developer proposes a huge energy storage system in Australia, and Florida may finally become a solar-friendly state.

The solar industry continues to go through ups and downs nearly every week, and this week was no different. There was another bankruptcy, but also some positive developments, continuing a mixed year depending on where you're looking in the industry.

Here are the notable news items for the week in solar and a peek at what they might mean to solar investors in the long term.

A worker installs solar panels on a roof.

Image source: Getty Images.

Tesla begins integrating solar, storage, and EVs

Tesla (TSLA -6.32%) updated its mobile app and My Tesla website this week to allow homeowners to manage and view where solar energy is headed in their home. They can choose to charge their Powerwall before a storm or adjust solar energy flow to charge their Teslas before leaving for the day.

This kind of control is where the ecosystem of solar, energy storage, and EVs is headed for energy companies. Tesla is, once again, a step ahead of competitors in integrating these products into an easy-to-use ecosystem.

That was quick

Hours after my article "Solar Shake-Up: Why More Bankruptcies Are Coming in 2017" was published, we had news of... another bankruptcy. This time, Suniva, a U.S. manufacturer of solar cells and modules, filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday after finding it impossible to compete in a low-cost solar panel market. Ironically, Suniva was majority owned by Chinese firm Shunfeng, and it is Chinese panels that have created the supply pressure that brought down Suniva.

The challenge for Suniva was that it didn't have any real differentiation, besides U.S. manufacturing. And with higher costs in the U.S., the company needed to charge a premium to break even versus Asian competitors. That's no way to build a lasting solar business, and it brought down another solar company this week.

In other bankruptcy news, solar financing company Sungevity quickly emerged from bankruptcy this week after private equity firm Northern Pacific Group bought its assets for $50 million. According to Greentech Media, the company has laid off employees without notice, bounced payroll checks, and neglected to pay for accrued vacation time, so it's hard to see how this once-booming company will ever come back from its trip to bankruptcy.

Utility-scale solar news

SunPower (SPWR -1.41%) completed construction on a 27 MW power plant on Japan's Honshu Island this week, which will power ISE Group's egg farming operations. The plant will be 50% owned by ISE Group, with 25% each owned by Total and SunPower. This is the first project for Total and SunPower in Japan, a market that could be a big opportunity given SunPower's highly efficient panels and Japan's natural space constraints.

GTM Research released a report this week that highlighted the market share of utility-scale tracker companies globally. Flex (FLEX -2.17%)-owned NEXTracker had the top market share with 30%, followed by Array Technologies with 17%, and First Solar (FSLR -4.78%) with 10%. SunPower came in tied for fifth with 6% of the market. What will be interesting to watch over the next couple of years is how tracker companies adapt as solutions are bundled together in a more complete, fully engineered package. For example, SunPower and First Solar are beginning to sell components that would include solar panels, racking, inverters, site design, and other services into one offering. NEXTracker, Array, and others will have to compete with this bundled solution, and that might cause market shares to change.

News and notes

Florida moved a step closer to exempting solar panels from the value assessed for property taxes for 20 years, beginning in 2018. The change in taxes was approved by 73% of voters last August and has gone through the state Senate and now the state House Commerce Committee unanimously. This bill would help reduce the cost of installing solar panels, since property taxes could otherwise diminish the payback of going solar by years. This is another sign of voters favoring solar over fossil fuels, which will be a big driver of solar energy going forward.

Developer SolarQ has proposed a 4,000 MWh lithium-ion battery storage system to accompany a 350 MW solar plant in Queensland, Australia, a plant that may grow in size to 800 MW. Solar and storage is becoming more common around the world, but this 4,000 MWh proposal is a giant leap forward for the industry. To put it into perspective, this is the size of 285,714 Tesla Powerwalls. That's a lot of energy storage, and could make the volatility of solar energy production a moot point in Australia.

Travis Hoium owns shares of First Solar and SunPower. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Tesla. The Motley Fool recommends Total. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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