Posts tagged ‘EUR’

First Solar Update

A few years ago I was asked to give a presentation in front of a group of Phoenix business leaders on climate and alternative energy.  I can't remember what particular group it was, but it was some public-private group that was heavily invested in advocating for local subsidies to promote strategic businesses - the sort of local MITI that most large cities have, that has this delusion that they can ramp up the city's growth by focusing public and private investment into a few selected industries (that they select, of course).

I told them that I thought their focus on solar manufacturing was dumb.  First, the whole idea that because Arizona is a good solar market meant that it should have some advantage in solar manufacturing made absolutely no sense.  This only makes sense for products with high transportation costs or a particular input cost that can be gotten more cheaply in one particular area (the location of aluminum manufacturing near cheap electricity in the Northwest comes to mind).  By the same logic all car manufacturers would be located in LA.

Second, I said that the whole solar business was completely driven by subsidies.  If the subsidies were to go away, the heart of the business would go away faster than  I specifically mentioned First Solar in a positive context here, saying that though they where wholly dependent on subsidies for their revenues, they at least acknowledged as a corporate strategy they needed to get costs low enough to compete without subsidies.  (Someday, solar will get to that point, I hope, but I am skeptical that current approaches will yield the breakthrough, but that is another discussion).

If you want to understand the financial problems First Solar is having, let me show you four items.

First, from their 2010 annual report:

Geographic Risk. Our solar modules are presently predominantly sold to our customers for use in solar power systems concentrated in a single geographic region, Germany. This concentration of our sales in one geographic region exposes us to local economic risks and local public policy and regulatory risk in German.

This is way back in the notes on page 133.  By the way, I took a whole course in business school on reading financial reports.  Here is the key lesson for those not in the financial industry:  read them from the back.  Skip all the glossy crap at the front, go straight to the notes.

OK, here is the second bit of information.  Here is a world map of solar insolation, which is essentially the total solar energy available to produce power in a location when adjusted for atmosphere, weather, latitude, etc.

See Germany?  I won't insult your geographic knowledge by pointing at it, but much of Germany is in that yellow-green color which, for solar potential, means (in scientific terms) "it sucks."  Let's zoom in, and compare it to the US to get a feel for it (combined from two charts here)

Apparently the better sites in Germany have the same solar potential as ... Seattle!  The sliver of absolute best sites in Germany have approximately the same solar potential as Buffalo, NY.

So we have a company whose fortunes are dedicated almost entirely to selling solar panels into one of the most unpromising solar sites in the world.   Why is Germany buying so much solar?

OK, here is the third bit of information.  For years Germany had enormous feed-in tariffs (mandated above-market minimum prices)  for solar electricity:

The German feed-in tariff scheme has been in operation since 1991 and is regarded as one of the most successful in the world. In Germany, feed-in tariff rates are differentiated according to the source of the renewable energy. Separate tariffs are determined for biogas, biomass, hydroelectric, geothermal, solar and wind energy sources. The tariff paid for solar generators varies between EUR 45.7c/kWh and EUR 57.4c/kWh, depending on the capacity of the system and other design features. The tariff is greater for generators that are attached to the roof of a building or structure and greater again for generators that are attached to another part of a building. In Germany, the feed-in tariff is paid for a period of 20 years

Note the language from several years ago where "most successful" is determined without references to costs.

0.574 Euros per kWh is equal to about $0.75 today and even more several years ago when exchange rates were higher.  Remember this is a wholesale price, and should be compared to a $0.04 to $0.06 wholesale electricity price in the US  (I use US numbers to as its not clear to me Europe has a particularly competitive wholesale market.  The French have some sort of fixed price system set around $0.06).

However one wants to look at it, these are enormous subsidies.  People putting up solar panels in Germany were getting paid 10-15x what a market price for the same electricity might have been.

Finally, here is the fourth piece of evidence leading to First Solar's woes.  In 2010 and 2011 Germany, whose consumers began to balk at paying the highest electricity rates in the world in order to subsidize the method of electrical generation least suitable to Germany, began substantially cutting these tariffs.  In 2012 they will cut them even further:

German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen and Economy Minister Philipp Roesler are set to hold a press conference on Thursday to outline the government's new approach on subsidies. However, the indications are that the cuts will be heavier than the market has been expecting:

  • a 30% cut in the feed-in-tariff (FIT) to 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour for new large solar installations
  • and a 20% cut in the FIT to 19.5 cents for new small plants

The market has of course been expecting cuts in the German FIT system. However, this news is decidedly worse than expected and likely to continue to pressure solar stocks - particularly those such as Yingli (YGE) with a significant exposure to German solar demand.

From a peak of $0.75 per kWh, Germany will now pay $0.255 per kWh for smaller installations, still four times the market price for wholesale electricity but only a third of what they paid during First Solar's boom years.  As I wrote yesterday, Germany was essentially paying $2 for milk from brown cows and $25 for milk from black cows.  This can't be sustained.

If one assumes a wholesale electricity price of 6 cents, First Solar's German customers were getting a 92% subsidy.  Sure, First Solar now faces other problems like Chinese competition and they have shot themselves in the foot on quality, but at the end of the day the only way they can survive is to convince some other government to turn on the taxpayer money spigot to keep them in business.  I am hoping we in Arizona and the US will not be the suckers, but I fear that we will.  One can argue the projects I discussed the other day, including the one where we taxpayers loaned First Solar the money to sell its solar panels to its own subsidiary, are evidence of this.  My guess is that First Solar will be throwing a lot of money and time towards Obama, praying for his re-election.

Government Picking Losers

I am done using the phrase "dangers of government trying to pick winners" because it implies that they sometimes might be successful.  They never are.  When governments choose, they choose losers.

I get a lot of pushback on this, because it seems to offend people's intuition.  They will say they know lots of good people they trust in government -- there is no way that all these smart, well-intentioned people are going to be so consistently wrong.

But the argument against government in this case (and in most other cases) is not based on the IQ or goodness of the individuals that populate it.  The argument is that even good people in groups make terrible decisions due to problems with their information and incentives.

The information problem is one that Hayek is famous for addressing.  In short, there is simply too much to know to make decisions for the entire economy.  In fact, folks with high IQ's often do especially poorly in this context, because they tend to overestimate their own knowledge and problem-solving ability.   And, even if one could be omniscient, it is still impossible to pick winners because 300 million people have different preferences and so one solution based on one set of idealized or mean preferences is going to sub-optimize for a lot of people  (remember this now that we all have to have health insurance plans on the exact same terms and coverage).

The incentives issue is perhaps an even more powerful problem.  We only have to look at the most recent health care bill and its progress through the legislative process to understand the power of incentives to shape rules and legislation in absurd ways.

Ethanol is a great illustration.  Scorned by scientists as both bad energy policy and bad environmental policy, ethanol mandates and subsidies do nothing but hurt the environment.  Ethanol generally takes more fossil fuels to produce than it replaces, it does almost nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, and it creates new environmental issues with land use as well as social issues from rising food prices.  If you listed a hundred potential legislative initiatives to improve the environment and energy policy, ethanol would likely be in the bottom 10.  But never-the-less, it is consistently the number 1 legislative solution adopted by western democracies, including the supposedly science-based Obama administration.

I used to say that if we could move the first Presidential primary out of Iowa, ethanol might go away, but obviously that understated the appeal of subsidizing the agricultural industry under the thin veneer of environmental policy, as demonstrated by these nutty large subsidies in Europe.  Via Carpe Diem:

Biofuels production in Europe is heavily subsidized. Support has also been increasing in the past years and today stand at approximately EUR4 billion ($5.76B). Another way to look at subsidies is that every litre of ethanol consumed in Europe gets 0.74 EUR (about $4 per gallon) and every litre of biodiesel 0.5 EUR ($2.72 per gallon). The effective rate of assistance to biofuels (taking account of all measures of support) adds up to more than 250% for ethanol (see chart above). Biodiesel, and especially rapeseed crops, have lower effective rates of assistance (up to approximately 60%).

This structure of support and protection is not economically sustainable. It is rather close to economic madness to pursue the sort of self-sufficiency or industrial policy ambitions that have guided EU policy towards biofuels. The total cost of every unit of biofuel becomes far too high, which slows down the readiness to shift away from fossil fuels.

The biofuels policy in the European Union is a classic example of "green protectionism" "“ protectionism that is not motivated for the benefit of the environment, but which uses environmental concerns to pursue non-environmental objectives. The European Union runs an extensive policy for subsidies to biofuel production. Border protection increases the level of subsidy by giving a market support from consumers to producers. Standards are used to favour domestically produced biofuels. It is difficult to escape the picture of a policy driven by industrial ambitions rather than environmental concerns. The intention and/or the effect of Europe's policy is associated with beliefs of self-sufficiency. Obviously, trade is not considered to be an integral part of an environmental ambition to shift from fossil fuels to biofuels.