BNEF: Solar beats wind on CAPEX in the developing world

With solar costs continuing their historic declines, it is only a matter of time before solar becomes cheaper not only than conventional power but also wind. According to a new report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), that day is fast arriving in the developing world.

BNEF’s latest data from its Climatescope service finds that the average capital expenditure (CAPEX) for new solar plants in 58 nations in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East is now lower than that of wind projects. The report documents that the CAPEX for new utility-scale solar has fallen to US$1.65 per watt in this region in the first three quarters of 2016, just below that of wind at $1.66 per watt.

This is in line with utility-scale solar cost declines in the United States, which fell below $1.50 per watt in the first quarter of 2016.

However, there is more to cost of electricity than CAPEX. BNEF Head of Solar Analysis Jenny Chase notes that the average cost of electricity from wind is still lower, due to higher annual output for wind projects. Chase puts capacity factors for solar plants without tracking systems at 16-21% in the developing world, compared to 20-45% for wind.

And given the ongoing price declines for solar, which have fallen in the 58 Climatescope nations by more than half since 2012, it is only a matter of time before solar is cheaper on an energy basis as well. Some signs of this are already showing, and with solar contract prices below $30 per megawatt-hour in Dubai and Chile, in many markets solar is already much cheaper than coal-fired power.

Climatescope also documents a major shift in the balance of renewable energy investment towards the developing world. The report finds for the first time in 2015 these developing nations both installed more renewable energy and invested slightly more in renewable energy than the 35 nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

China had an outsized role in this in 2015, but again the trends are clear. The 58 Climatescope nations have increased their investment in renewable energy every year since 2011, with the aggregate nearly doubling to $154 billion, while investment in OECD nations has actually decreased.

“While this year the big swing factor was China, and India is only slowly becoming more interesting, this is a major area of future growth,” BNEF’s Jenny Chase told pv magazine. “While these are currently not all giants, they are all steadily on the up. We don’t know which countries are going to be big breakout markets, but some of them are.”

Chase also notes that the cost reduction trends are a major factor. “Although in some of these countries these costs are still higher, that is going to even out a little bit as competitive tenders sweep these nations.”

Of the $154 billion that the Climatescope nations invested in renewable energy in 2015, $72 billion went to solar, just less than that of wind. Chase has explained that much of this was for solar projects in China, many of which were completed in the nation’s historic boom in the first half of 2016.

Among the 58 Climatescope nations are the major economies of Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa.