US solar panels imports rose 9% in Q1’21 amid record growth forecasts

Source: By Michael Copley and Krizka Danielle Del Rosario, S&P Global • Posted: Wednesday, April 21, 2021

U.S. solar panel imports climbed 9% in the first quarter of 2021 as the market geared up for what is expected to be a year of record growth following the election of President Joe Biden, a Democrat who has made limiting climate change an environmental and economic priority.

Nearly 65,000 shipping containers loaded with solar panels arrived at U.S. ports during the first three months of the year, up from around 59,700 in the prior quarter, with the vast majority coming from Asia, according to research firm Panjiva.

Analysts at BloombergNEF said project developers will add more than 25 GW of new solar capacity annually in the U.S. over the next four years, an increase of at least 52% from the 16.5 GW installed in 2020.

SNL Image

“[We] expect accelerated growth in the U.S. market, driven by the increasingly competitive cost of solar power and solid support for renewable energy development by the new administration,” Peter Aschenbrenner, chief strategy officer at panel-maker Maxeon Solar Technologies Ltd., said on an April 6 earnings call. Maxeon, which is headquartered in Singapore, is increasing production for the U.S. market and plans to open a panel-assembly factory in the country.

Biden has set a goal for the U.S. to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 2035 and recently unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan along with an ambitious offshore wind target, both aimed at offering viable pathways to decarbonize the U.S. economy.

While solar panel prices have fallen dramatically in recent years, soaring global demand and rising shipping and raw material costs have started to push up panel prices, forcing some project backers to accept lower returns, Xiande Li, chairman and CEO of China’s JinkoSolar Holding Co. Ltd., one of the industry’s biggest manufacturers, told analysts April 9.

“It won’t change overnight, but, gradually, I think that the [pricing] pressure will be released,” said Gener Miao, chief marketing officer of a JinkoSolar subsidiary that is planning an initial public offering in China. “The challenge here right now is the demand side is very, very hot.”

SNL Image

NextEra Energy Inc., a JinkoSolar customer and the top owner of planned solar capacity in the U.S., has said its competitive power business, NextEra Energy Resources LLC, expects to install at least 4.8 GW of new solar capacity in 2021-2022, more than three times the roughly 1.5 GW the company brought into service the two previous years. It is also adding a significant amount of solar power to the portfolio of its regulated utility, Florida Power & Light Co.

“NextEra Energy remains well positioned to capitalize on the disruptive forces reshaping our industry, which have expanded and accelerated over the past 2 years, even beyond what we had anticipated” Jim Robo, the company’s chairman, president and CEO, said on an earnings call in January. “We now believe that a substantial and economic decarbonization of the electricity, transportation and industrial sectors is possible, which represents a potential investment opportunity of trillions of dollars in the coming decades.”

Long-time energy companies and big investors are chasing the same opportunities.

On April 13, Talen Energy Corp., a power producer with a portfolio heavy on fossil fuels, said it formed a joint venture with Pattern Energy Group LP to invest $2 billion in renewable energy projects, including an initial portfolio of six solar plants in Pennsylvania.

“The economic recovery policy in the post-COVID era and accelerating decarbonization of the U.S. energy system will further enhance the attractiveness of solar power and energy efficiency,” Miao of JinkoSolar told analysts April 9. The extension of renewable energy tax credits at the end of 2020 is also expected to boost project development in the coming years.

SNL Image

However, the U.S. solar market could face near-term disruptions as the industry’s Chinese supply chains come under increased scrutiny for potential labor abuses. China’s autonomous Xinjiang region, where Beijing is accused of suppressing Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, including through the use of forced labor, is a major supplier of polysilicon to the solar industry.

During the first quarter, approximately one-third of the solar panels imported to the U.S. came from China and Hong Kong, according to Panjiva. Including factories that Chinese companies have opened throughout Asia, the country’s market share is considerably larger.

Rooftop solar company Sunnova Energy International Inc. has told investors that while it is committed to ensuring that its suppliers practice ethical sourcing, the U.S. government’s response to alleged labor abuses “could disrupt our supply chain and our operations could be adversely impacted.”