Solar takes center stage at BNEF Future of Energy Summit

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Despite stock market troubles and the pending bankruptcy of the world’s largest renewable energy developer, the mid- to long-term outlook for solar is distinctly positive at day one of the 2016 Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Future of Energy Summit in New York City.

This is the sixth year of the conference. This year Future of Energy became invite-only, with 1,000 attendees mostly from energy industries and government packed into conference rooms at the Grand Hyatt in mid-town. The speakers list includes U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, solar, nuclear and conventional energy CEOs and energy ministers from at least three nations.

At this exclusive, high-level conference, the biggest topic of conversation is the ongoing rise in solar PV.

In the Summit Welcome, BNEF CEO John Moore presented a slide which predicts that solar will make up nearly 1/3 of all new investments in electricity generation over the next 15 years. In terms of capacity, this means 1.76 TW of utility-scale and 1.67 TW of distributed solar, for a combined total of 3.43 terawatts (3.4 million MW) of deployment by 2030.

BNEF is expecting major investments not only in grid-tied solar but in off-grid as well, and expects 99 million households in the developing world to deploy off-grid solar by 2020. This will be accompanied by big changes in other parts of the electricity sector, with BNEF predicting a big shift to electric vehicles in coming decades.

These numbers were reflected in the excitement over solar which was seen at many of the panels and events. For the Big Solar for Big Energy panel discussion, the room overflowed with as many attendees standing as there were seated, and there was again no sitting room during a solar manufacturing lunch session.

The conference repeatedly came back to the role of low prices in ongoing deployment growth. “Every time we reduce costs, we trigger new demand on a global basis,” stated First Solar CEO Jim Hughes. In his presentation, Chilean Energy Minister Maximo Pacheco noted that prices in the nation’s latest auction for solar had fallen 40% since 2013.

Finance is another key focus of the summit, particularly the connection between finance and falling costs. Leading solar analysts and other expressed skepticism about developers being able to build projects under the low prices awarded in recent auctions in Brazil and Mexico. Commenting on this, Conergy CEO Andrew DePass noted that “low cost capital is critical for successful competition in tenders” in these nations.

One of the ironies in the larger financial market is that while solar stock prices are suffering along with a larger slump in energy stocks, annual investment in clean energy continues to grow. A cloud over the summit is the expectation that SunEdison will file for bankruptcy some time in the next few weeks, after missing various regulatory deadlines.