The Sun May Be Setting On Solar Energy Boom

Workers at a solar power plant in China
Workers at a solar power plant in China

PARIS — Solar has become the new energy El Dorado. With the price of solar panels plummeting, solar energy has developed spectacularly in recent years. Less than 10 years ago, there were only a few gigawatts (GW) of new solar panels installed each year. This year, new capacity should represent more than 70 GW, up from 51 GW in 2015 and 41 GW in 2014.

"The market has nearly doubled in two years," says Thierry Lepercq, co-founder of a firm called Solairedirect.

The list of countries jumping aboard the solar train keeps growing: already underway in Asia (China, Japan, India, Korea), Europe, the United States and Latin America (Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Peru), the revolution has now reached Africa and the Middle East.

Listed prices for solar electricity are increasingly unbeatable. Last May, a call for bids in Dubai reached the unprecedented price of $29.90 per megawatt hour. A few weeks later, in Chile, there was a new record: $29.10. Then, a few weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, a consortium proposed a per-megawatt-hour price of $23.

Prices of this kind are based on particular conditions. They're still the exception, in other words. But even "standard" prices are dropping — to the point that questions are being raised about profitability. It's no longer rare, for example, to see bidding prices in the $35 to $40 per megawatt hour range. "I don't know if the solar business will make money today," Patrick Pouyann, the CEO of the energy company Total, recently stated.

The fourth large-scale project Activ Solar has completed, a station located in Crimea — Photo: Activ Solar

Total holds 58% of SunPower, a major U.S. solar panel producer whose stock prices have fallen significantly this year. Has the bubble begun to burst? The scenario is different for project leaders — the firms that design, build, and operate solar power plants — than it is for panel manufacturers. The former justify their low bidding prices on the dramatic drop in overhead costs. Solar panel prices fell 70 percent between 2010 and 2015. And this year they're down another 15 percent, according to the IEA.

"The panels have gained in efficiency; the price of silicon has dropped; the size of the parks has grown; the installation of trackers, which can follow the course of the sun, is widespread; and the tax level has dropped," says Antoine Cahuzac, the CEO of EDF Energies Nouvelles.

For investors, the changes mean decreased returns. "A few years ago, we expected double-digit returns of 12 percent to 15 percent. Now we're happy with 8 percent to 10 percent. But we balance the lower margins with increased volumes," says Xaviar Barbaro, CEO of Neoen.

The outlook is more troubling for panel manufacturers. "The market is again at overcapacity," says Jenny Chase, a solar energy specialist at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). "And it will still be the following year. Demand will certainly climb higher, but for things to balance out, there'll need to be a new wave of bankruptcies."

SunPower, the U.S. subsidiary of Total, announced over the summer that it would cut 15 percent of its workforce and expects to lose $100-200 million in 2017. Chinese firms like Yingo or RenaSola are also struggling, say analysts.

In the long term, the solar energy revolution will no doubt continue and succeed. The IEA expects installed capacity of solar panels to double yet again between now and 2021. But in the short term, sector players see a path still littered with obstacles.

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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