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Why Demand Is Rising for Big Solar Projects

Paul Ausick

Utility-scale solar installations in the United States at the end of the third quarter were 15% higher than a year ago. As of the end of September, total new installations in the country rose from 942 megawatts in 2012 to 1,081 megawatts. An additional 311 megawatts of new solar installations were announced in the third quarter, most of which will not be in service until next year or later.

The data are included in the latest report on utility-scale solar projects from SNL.

Lower solar PV panel prices, state-level renewable portfolio standards and financial incentives like the investment tax credit get much of the credit for the continuing high levels of construction. The retirement of older fossil-fuel (mostly coal) and nuclear plants also have contributed to growth.

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SNL reports that 36,794 megawatts of new utility-scale solar projects are in the pipeline for completion in the next 10 years. Slightly more than half that total, 19,182 megawatts, is scheduled to come online by the end of 2016 when the 30% production tax is set to drop to 10%. Projects must be commissioned by that time to qualify for the full credit. More than 10,000 megawatts is either in an advanced state of development or under construction, and about 9,000 megawatts of that is estimated to be in service by the end of 2016.

U.S. solar panel makers First Solar Inc. (FSLR), SunPower Corp. (SPWR) and SunEdison Inc. (SUNE) all have seen shares shoot up in the past 12 months. First Solar stock is up more than 100%, SunEdison is up nearly 300% and SunPower is up more than 550%. Chinese solar maker Trina Solar Ltd. (TSL) is up more than 300%, and Canadian Solar Inc. (CSIQ) is up more than 700% in the past 12 months.

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First Solar and SunPower focus on utility-scale solar projects, and the project pipelines for the next few years indicate that these two companies will continue to do well. SunEdison also plays in the utility space and has announced that it will spin off its semiconductor business early next year.

Trina Solar and Canadian Solar primarily supply solar modules and panels to project owners. According to an industry estimate, Chinese-made solar panels sell for an average of around $0.66 per watt.

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