Investment Case for Solar Energy | Understanding the growth of the solar energy industry
Our Solar Energy ETF offers exposure to the rapidly growing solar industry.
To learn more about our solar energy ETF and the industry, please view the full whitepaper:
The Investment Case for Solar Energy | Executive Summary
Solar Energy 101
Benefits of Solar Energy
1. Sustainable Source of Green
Energy – Sunlight offers a free, abundant source of zero-carbon producing
energy, unlike fossil fuels, nuclear, coal and natural gas.
1. Cost Effective – Solar energy
costs continue to decline due to technological advances and economies of scale,
creating cost-parity in many world regions.
3. Diverse Applications – Solar
energy can be used to generate electricity (photovoltaics) or heat (solar
4. Scalable Solution –
Installations can be large scale (utility) or small scale (residential and
5. Battery Storage –
Solar-plus-storage systems facilitate the source of electricity 24 hours a
day/seven days a week to solve solar energy’s intermittency issues.
Growing global demand for sustainable green energy solutions has
created an investment opportunity for companies in the solar energy supply
chain. Of all of technology’s utopian visions of the future, a world of clean
solar power may be one of the closest to realization. Solar is the
fastest-growing source of new energy capacity, which is expected to increase by
over 800% through 2050, as shown in the chart below.
Capacity Forecast to Grow 800% from 2019 to 2050 Worldwide Electric Power
Capacity Forecast Through 2050 (in Gigawatts)
BloombergNEF, 2020. This illustration shows the forecast for capacity
growth for all conventional and renewable energy sources worldwide, including
coal, gas, oil, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, solar, storage and others.
Clockwise from top of left pie chart shows 2019 worldwide electric power
capacity growth forecasts for oil at 2%, coal at 28%, gas at 23%, other at 4%,
nuclear at 5%, hydro at 15%, wind at 8%, solar at 11% and storage at 4%.
Clockwise from top of right pie chart shows 2050 worldwide electric power
capacity growth forecasts for oil at 8%, coal at 7%, gas at 15%, other at 1%,
nuclear at 2%, hydro at 7%, wind at 20%, solar at 38% and solar at 2%.
By 2040, solar is expected to be
the largest source of global electrical capacity with over 35% more installed
capacity than natural gas. Fossil fuels are expected to fall to just 24% of
power generation by 2050 from the 62% level today.
The world is in the middle of a
power revolution – and the new governmental consensus that the world needs to
transition to a lower-carbon economy will likely continue to fuel the trend.
In addition, the technology
behind solar continues to advance rapidly, and declining costs have made
previously unviable technical solutions practical. Solar energy is the cheapest
new source of electricity in most major countries, and as costs continue to
decline, solar operations will undercut fossil-fuel based power generation.
Even with relatively lower oil prices over the last five years, solar has become extremely competitive on price, reaching an inflection point of affordability that is resulting in a drastic increase in solar use around the world.
International Energy Agency, 2020
illustration shows the estimated amount of renewable power capacity growth
between 2020 and 2025 as measured in gigawatts (GW). One GW can power 300,000
homes. Solar PV is forecast to have the largest capacity growth of 736 GW,
followed by Onshore Wind with 334 GW, Hydropower with 121 GW, Offshore Wind
with 54 GW, Bioenergy with 36 GW and Other (CSP, Ocean and Geothermal) with 4
Solar Is an Inexpensive Source of Clean Energy
Solar power has
cheapened at a blistering pace. Just 12 years ago, solar was the most expensive
option for building a new energy development. Since then, the cost has dropped
by 90%, according to data from the Levelized Cost of Energy report by Lazard.
Utility-scale solar arrays are now the least costly power option to build and
Source: Lazard. This illustration shows the selected
historical mean of unsubsidized levelized cost of energy values, in US dollars.
From the left axis, the blue line shows the cost of solar was $359/Megawatt
hour (MWh) in 2009, dropping to $37/MWh in 2020; the cost of gas peaker was
$275/MWh in 2009, dropping to $175 in 2020; the cost of solar thermal tower was
$168/MWh in 2009, falling to $141/MWh in 2020; the cost of wind was $135/MWh in
135/MWh in 2009, falling to $40/MWh in 2020; the cost of nuclear was $123/MWh
in 2009, increasing to $163/MWh in 2020; the cost of coal was $111/MWh in 2009,
increasing to $112/MWh. in 2020; the cost of gas combined cycle was $83/MWh in
2009, falling to $59/MWh in 2020; and the cost of geothermal was $76/MWh in
2009, rising to $80/MWh in 2020.
As shown in the chart below, even
certain unsubsidized new-build renewable energy generation technologies are
approaching a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) that is competitive with the
marginal cost of existing conventional generation. LCOE is a measure of a power
source that allows comparison of different methods of electricity generation on
a consistent basis.
utility-scale solar ranges from $29-$38 per MegaWatt hour (MWh). This is
competitive with the marginal costs to run existing coal or nuclear power
plants at $34-$48/MWh and $25-$32/MWh, respectively. Declining solar energy
prices have been made possible by both research and development, as well as the
economic “learning curve” concept, which means that as more of a technology is
deployed, it becomes cheaper and more efficient.
Is Competitively Priced vs Dirty Energy
Levelized Cost of Energy Comparison: Renewable Energy vs
Marginal Cost of Selected Existing Conventional Energy
Lazard Asset Management, estimates as of December 2020
illustration shows renewable energy prices are comparable to conventional
energy costs, especially the prices for Onshore Wind Subsidized, Solar PV-Thin
Film Utility Scale and Solar PV-Thin Film Utility Scale Subsidized.
Cost of Solar Energy: A Potential Catalyst for Increased Adoption
Source: U.S. Department of Energy. This illustration
shows the drop in U.S. utility-scale solar power cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh)
since 2010 and cost forecasts through 2030. The cost of solar power in 2010 was
$0.277/kWh, falling to 0.046/kWh in 2020. The U.S. Department of Energy
forecasts solar energy cost will further drop to $0.03/kWh in 2025 and to
$0.02/kWh in 2030.
The U.S. Department of Energy has
set a goal of reducing the cost of utility-scale solar power to 2 cents per
kilowatt hour by 2030. This follows the 2011 SunShot Initiative, which set a
goal for 2020 and reached it three years early. Figures in the chart above show
the LCOE, which takes into account costs of construction and operation.
Declining Solar-Module Prices
The technological cost of solar
modules, a key material used to generate solar power, has rapidly declined, as
shown in the chart below. This is an important reason for lower solar energy
Solar module prices typically
decline as more of them are produced. For more than four decades, each doubling
of global cumulative solar capacity has been associated with a 20.2% decline in
solar module prices, as shown in the chart below. The price of solar modules
declined from $106 in 1976 to $0.38 per watt in 2019, a decline of 99.6%.
Unlike fossil fuels, there is no
raw “input” fuel cost associated with solar energy. A solar plant’s cost is
determined by the cost of the technology alone.
99% Price Decline
Sources: OurWorldinData.org; Lafond et al. (2017) and
IRENA Database; the reported learning rate is an average over several studies
reported by de La tour et al. (2013) in Energy. The rate has remained very
similar since then.
This chart shows the price of solar modules
declined from $106/Watt in 1976 to $0.38/Watt in 2019, a decline of 99.6%. With
each doubling of global cumulative solar capacity has been associated with a
20.2% decline in solar module prices.
Solar Energy Supply Chain
There are several components involved with solar energy development, starting
from the manufacturing of equipment and module production, all the way to
installation and operation. The chart below shows these components and their
National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Wikipedia.com. This illustration shows
the components of solar energy generation.
Polycrystalline silicon, or multicrystalline
silicon, also called polysilicon or poly-Si, is a high purity, polycrystalline
form of silicon, used as a raw material by the solar photovoltaic and
electronics industry. Polysilicon is produced from metallurgical grade silicon
by a chemical purification process, which is called the Siemens process,
involving the distillation of volatile silicon compounds and their
decomposition into silicon at high temperatures. An emerging, alternative
process of refinement uses a fluidized bed reactor
An ingot is a piece of relatively
pure material, usually metal, which is cast into a shape suitable for further
processing. In steelmaking, it is the first step among semi-finished casting
products. Ingots usually require a second procedure of shaping, such as
cold/hot working, cutting, or milling to produce a useful final product.
In electronics, a wafer is a thin
slice of semiconductor, such as a crystalline silicon used for the fabrication
of integrated circuits. In photovoltaics, it is used to manufacture solar
cells. The wafer serves as the substrate for microelectronic devices built in
and upon the wafer. It undergoes many microfabrication processes, such as
doping, ion implantation, etching, thin-film deposition of various materials
and photolithographic patterning. Finally, the individual microcircuits are
separated by wafer dicing and packaged as an integrated circuit.
A solar cell or photovoltaic cell
is an electrical device that converts the energy of light directly into
electricity by the photovoltaic effect, which is a physical and chemical
phenomenon. It is a form of photoelectric cell, defined as a device whose
electrical characteristics, such as current, voltage or resistance, vary when
exposed to light. Individual solar cell devices are often the electrical
building blocks of PV modules or solar panels. The common single junction
silicon solar cell can produce a maximum open-circuit voltage of approximately
0.5 to 0.6 volts.
A PV module or solar panel is an
assembly of photo-voltaic cells mounted in a framework for installation. Solar
panels use sunlight as a source of energy and generate direct current
Components of Building a Solar Power System
More than half of the cost of
building a solar power system goes into installing cables, racking and labor.
Other cost components include building an inverter, PV modules, DC and AC
breakers, as well as interconnection.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The illustration shows the cost of
building a solar power system. Cables and racking make up 30% of the cost, 26% goes
into installation labor, 20% goes into building an inverter, 15% into PV
modules and 9% goes into installing DC and AC breakers/interconnection.
Current (DC) and Alternating Current (AC) Circuit Breakers
The function of a breaker is to detect
when too much current (amps) is flowing through the circuit, then disconnect
the circuit from the main power source to protect the wiring from overheating.
During the act of disconnecting, the internal contacts separate. As they pull
apart from each other, an arc will form as the current jumps across the air
gap. (You may have experienced this on a smaller scale with a static electric
shock.) If this arc continues to jump the air gap, the current will continue to
flow through the circuit, defeating the purpose of the breaker. This arc must
be extinguished. The AC and DC breakers extinguish this arc differently. This
design difference is why AC and DC breakers are not interchangeable.
Aluminum or copper are the two
common conductor materials used in residential and commercial solar
installations. Copper has a greater conductivity than aluminum, thus it carries
more current than aluminum at the same size.
Used to safely fix solar panels
to various surfaces such as roofs, building facades, or the ground. The system
is designed to easily be retrofitted to existing rooftops and structures.
An assembly of photovoltaic cells mounted in a framework for
One of the most important pieces of equipment in a solar energy
system. It's a device that converts DC electricity, which is what a solar panel
generates, to AC electricity, which the electrical grid uses.
Solar Battery Storage
Solar panels collect sunlight and
transform it into electricity. But they can make that energy only when the sun
is shining. That’s why the ability to store solar energy for later use is
important. It helps to keep the balance between electricity generation and demand.
Lithium-ion batteries are one way to store this energy.
A lithium-ion battery is a type
of rechargeable battery commonly used for portable electronics and electric
vehicles. In the batteries, lithium ions move from the negative electrode
through an electrolyte to the positive electrode during discharge, and back
Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
illustration shows the solar-plus-storage system, which is charged by a
connected solar system, such as a photovoltaic system.
Many solar-energy system owners
are looking at ways to connect their system to a battery so they can use that
energy at night or during a power outage. Simply put, a solar-plus-storage
system is a battery system that is charged by a connected solar system, such as
Clean Energy Goes Global
Many countries are expected to
invest in clean energy in the coming decades to help meet their net-zero carbon
- Globally, over $15 trillion is expected to be
invested in new power capacity (an average of $486 billion per year) between
- Solar is expected to account for 28% of all
renewable energy investment globally. Over $4 trillion ($135 billion per year
on average) will be invested in solar.
As over 100 countries strive to
meet their net-zero carbon emission targets by 2050, many will prioritize
converting or substituting dirty-energy powered utilities for clean-energy
For example, U.S. President
Joseph Biden has set a goal of zero emissions from electric utilities by 2035
and a broader goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Approximately 50% of all U.S.
carbon emissions come from utilities [see chart below], while the rest come
from sectors like transportation and industries where technologies may be
slower to evolve from dirty energy to clean energy (i.e., airlines still need
to fly on jet fuel, not electric vehicle technology).
Global Electricity and Heat Producers:
Largest Contributors to Carbon Emissions
IEA and Morgan Stanley Research, November 2020; Based on IEA data collected
illustration shows electricity and heat producers account for 51% of carbon
emissions globally, while industries account for 28% of total emissions,
transportation’s share is 10%, residential’s share is at 4%, other energy
industries at 3%, commercial and public services at 2% and others at 2%.
However, there are expectations
that worldwide electric utility power capacity will almost triple between 2019-2050
as more and more technologies adopt clean electric energy solutions and
New Power Capacity by Region, 2020-2050
Sources: BloombergNEF; OurWorldinData.com https://ourworldindata.org/world-region-map-definitions;
Includes investments in generation and storage capacity, 2020. This
illustration shows the forecast for investments in power capacity by global
regions in US dollars ($ billions).
As the total installed capacity
of electric power rapidly grows, solar and other renewable energy sources will
also increase their share of the global electricity generation mix from now
through 2050, as shown in the chart below.
Global Electricity Generation Mix
Source: Bloomberg NEF and International Energy Agency,
*New Energy Outlook 2020. This illustration shows that the global share of
renewable energy is expected to increase to 69% by 2050, with solar and wind
energy accounting for 56% of that figure. The share of fossil fuels is expected
to decrease by 24% by 2050.
Learn more about our solar energy ETF here.