There's enough solar energy hitting the Earth's surface in one hour to provide more than enough energy for the world's population for an entire year. But that energy can be intermittent and very seasonal, especially in cloudy locations far from the equator.
That's bad for those of us living in the upper Midwest but it's not the least bit of a deterrent for desert countries close to the equator. That's where solar power makes the most sense. When you consider where some of these countries currently get their power, it is extremely economically viable to be looking at solar. This is the future of solar.
The surprising future of solar
You may know Saudi Arabia as one of the largest producers of oil in the world but it's also a country that's going all-in on solar. It has announced $109 billion in planned solar investments. Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud said that he "would like to see Saudi Arabia using 100% renewable energy within my lifetime." The prince is 67 so the transition could be quick.
The reason is easy. Oil is more valuable to Saudi Arabia as an export than it is burning in electricity generators. Electricity from oil is increasingly expensive when you consider that the alternative is selling the same oil on the worldwide market for close to $100 per barrel.
Like many oil-producing countries, Saudi Arabia produces about half of its electricity from oil. The direct cost may be low but the opportunity cost is high. Consider an example from the U.S. as a demonstration why Saudi Arabia is making the switch. Hawaii generates 77% of its electricity from petroleum and spends $0.2512 per kW-hr on electricity as a result. The national average cost of electricity is $0.1187 for residential, and a far lower $0.0668 for the industrial sector.
Now that the cost of solar electricity has fallen to below 10 cents per kW-hr in recent California auctions it makes all the sense in the world for Saudi Arabia to make a big bet on solar so it can save oil for export.
New markets pile on solar potential
Saudi Arabia isn't the only new country taking advantage of solar as resource. GTM Research estimates Latin America and the Carribbean will install 459 MW of solar in 2013, growing to 5.7 GW by 2017. Abu Dhabi has set a goal of 7%, or about 1.6 GW, of its peak power from renewables by 2020; it is opening a 100 MW concentrated solar plant early this year to start. Deutsche Bank analyst Vishal Shah predicts that solar in China will grow to 10 GW this year and in India will be at 4 GW.
The need for more power and the high cost of fossil fuels are driving this solar investment.
The companies taking advantage
A rising tide will lift a lot of solar companies, but there are some companies taking particular advantage.
ReneSola (NYSE:SOL) announced last week it would be providing panels for a 15 kW project in Saudi Arabia. It's not an earth-shattering project, but it provides a foothold in the region.
SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR) has openly discussed using its majority owner Total (NYSE:TOT) to expand its reach in oil-rich Middle East countries. Last year, CEO Thomas Werner said the company is working on bundling Total fuel contracts with SunPower module sales. It's a win-win situation for both companies and could give SunPower an advantage it wouldn't otherwise have.
Finally, Suntech Power (NYSE: STP) recently flipped the switch on a 3.5 MW solar project in Saudi Arabia, the biggest in the country so far. Suntech's size gives it wide reach in the Middle East, which will help the company if financial issues don't bring it down first.
Foolish bottom line
The future of solar is bright in many parts of the world and investors need to look far beyond the U.S. or Europe for the big opportunities.