Like a lot of you, I expected to have the Mr. Fusion gizmo from the "Back to the Future" pictures powering my car and house by now -- something cheap, clean, sustainable and renewable to provide the juice that keeps life moving in the 21st Century.
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Alas, it has not come to pass: All the touted miracle energy breakthroughs, from unlimited electricity from tidal power to hydrogen fuel cells, haven't amounted to a hill of kumquats. But others -- wind, solar, biomass, geothermal -- have added significant capacity to the national power grid as the country has begun to embrace green power. Total installed renewable energy capacity -- at utility scale -- has grown about 80% in the past decade.
Take wind. Wind was, for want of a better term, something of a fad during this time. This has always struck me as Too Bad. Wind, after all, hits all the high points the granola crowd wants: Certainly, it's clean. It's sustainable as long as the wind blows. And though some environmentalists harbor concerns about their effect on wildlife, wind power turbines create little disruption to the natural world (though they do tend to forever change the view). And while green power is thought of in the popular culture as expensive, it's actually competitively priced. Wind, in fact, is one of the cheapest sources of power, period, at about $55/megawatt hour. Nuclear power goes for $96; natural gas about $100. If all we had was wind, power would be cheaper than it is now for a lot of consumers.
The trouble is that wind is part of the weather and, as such, is unpredictable. So, while wind power can alleviate some demand during times of peak need -- or any time it's available – it can't fully replace conventional power sources. But it still provides cost savings, which are attractive to utilities that can buy the power, and it also has generated some significant tax benefits for producers. So maybe wind deserves to be called something a little nicer than "fad." After all, in the past decade, data from the U.S. Energy Department shows that wind capacity rose about 360% -- outpacing total renewable growth by a factor of four. That's pretty good growth.
During that same period, thermal solar also grew by more than 300% -- 314.9% for those of you keeping track at home.
Thermal solar always struck me as kind of a Wile E. Coyote approach: Huge mirrors direct concentrated sunlight/heat to big pots of water, which the solar heat boils into steam. But thermal has one drawback – it takes a lot of space, it can't be installed just anywhere, it won't work in cities, and it is terribly pricey. A megawatt hour of thermal solar power is nearly twice again that of natural gas, $176.
Still, the growth is a little tempting. Thermal solar is definitely being added to the grid. It's being used more and more every day.
Even so, I'm not all that jazzed about thermal solar. Absent some form of subsidy, it's dead in the water unless or until natural gas and coal are outlawed. I was ready to look elsewhere. Solar schmolar.
Then I looked at the data for photovoltaic solar power.
And things changed.
The Real Growth In Solar Power
Photovoltaic solar is nothing more than a larger version of the little power cell that powers a $2.99 handheld calculator. These are the panels that go on the roof of your house or a shopping mall, distribution center or other ginormous building. In the past decade, installed capacity has grown by an astonishing 65,300%, from no more than 77,000 megawatts to more than 50 million.
Now, that's growth.
To be sure, solar isn't perfect. It only works – and this will knock the bus token out of your watch pocket – when the sun shines. That's great in places like Las Vegas or Phoenix, which have more than 200 sunny days a year when the sky is less than 30% occluded by cloud cover. It's not so great in places like Pittsburgh, Pa., with 59 sunny days a year, or Buffalo, N.Y., at a whopping 54. The second problem is that solar is not particularly efficient: The best panels out there only grab about a fifth of the sun's power. Third, solar is kind of ephemeral – it has to be used, as it is difficult to store.
But these are manageable limitations. Geographically, there are tons of places in this large country where thermal solar is viable. A brand-new technology that I'll tell you about in a bit is upturning conventional wisdom regarding efficiency – it's really exciting what's being done in the national labs and in other research facilities. Finally, advances in battery technology suggest that storing solar energy is possible. So with this in mind, when I put my thinking cap on and ask "What's next" I conclude that we're in the initial stages of a radical shift in energy generation toward solar.
Some other important factors to bear in mind:
Governmental action from the White House has added itself to the mix. In January, President Trump announced steep tariffs on imported solar panels. This did two things: It immediately made U.S.-produced solar panels a little more competitive than low-cost alternatives from China or South Korea. And, two, it has led to a solar manufacturing boom. Foreign companies are simply building factories here, changing the ZIP code on their shipping address and dodging Trump's import duties without changing a single angle on the engineering specs. Since Mr. Trump announced his tariffs, China's JinkoSolar (NYSE: JKS) has bought a plant in Jacksonville, Fla., First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR) added to its manufacturing base in Ohio and SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWR) bought struggling SolarWorld Americas, which had petitioned the president for the tariffs, according to The Wall Street Journal.
China, one of the leading solar countries, has generated massive demand. The Chinese government, in a holdover from Chairman Mao, administers government programs based on five-year plans. Its most recent plan called for a ton of new solar installs. China has halted this, which caused solar stocks to fall. But it's key to read the fine print and to read between the lines.
One, these projects might be halted, but they are not abandoned. They're on indefinite hold, yes, but the Chinese can overturn that if they choose – and no one knows what the next five-year plan will mean for solar. Also, one must consider that the move was designed to disrupt the market in response to Mr. Trump's tariffs. The president is no fan of Chinese trade policies, and so some of this might just be palace intrigue. Just to keep things in perspective, a United Nations report found that China spent $86.5 billion on solar in just 2017.
China is aiming to derive 20% of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources. Right now, the number is only 13%, so a lot of those halted projects are actually extremely likely to eventually be green-lighted.
Big news on the solar front was just announced in California. On a unanimous vote, regulators there voted to require solar panels on any new residence, be it house or condo. This will add about $9,500 in cost to an average new home (a drop in the bucket in a state where the average value of a new home exceeds a half-million smackers. The rules go into effect in 2020, and you can bet manufacturers are already gearing up to meet the anticipated demand in this massive market. Adding to this, California tends to lead the nation with green initiatives, and progressive states like Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York are likely to follow suit, especially given that the price of PV solar has dropped by 72% in the past decade.
This all combines to create a perfect storm for solar for the next 24 to 36 months, and it's something that growth-oriented investors need to be keeping an eye on. Solar investors MUST be focused on the long term, as these systems last a long time. A PV solar panel can easily last for 25 years (and unlike every other form of power, renewable or otherwise, it requires almost no maintenance over its long life).
That's now. A moment ago, I mentioned a new technology was in the offing. Right now, as I said, a good PV solar panel from a top-shelf manufacturer can achieve 20% efficiency, which means that 80% of the energy is lost. To be sure, incumbent silicone-based panels are good panels. They're the industry standard. They work. But the dream is to move the needle on their energy-capture rate.
The Next Big Trend In Solar
I almost can't type this without tap dancing. This is why I love this job. A new type of panel called "perovskite" is blowing the lid off the industry. These panels are very thin. They're flexible. They can be printed on a machine that reminds me of an old-school newspaper press or even just sprayed on a surface from an ink-like solution.
Perovskite solar cells have already exceeded the 20% threshold – last summer they achieved 22.7%, and you can bet the geniuses working day and night on this project aren't sitting around thinking, "Hey, that's good enough." So this new research is great. But let me tell you what's Even Better.
You see, these panels are so thin that they can be installed OVER an existed photovoltaic panel without blocking so much as a watt's worth of power. I predict every panel on every roof, and those yet to be built, ultimately will be covered with a second perovskite cell -- a move that will effectively double solar output to the power grid.
Some have suggested, and I applaud this creative thinking, that these panels could be installed on the exterior of an automobile. With technology already proven in the National Renewable Energy Labs, perovskite plus photovoltaic can deliver in excess of 40% efficiency. My assumption is that efficiency will continue to rise – just as microchip speed does.
Bottom line: The International Energy Agency foresees a 16-fold increase in solar from 2016 to 2040. This is where the growth is. As an investor, this is where I want to be looking.
OK, now you know where the growth is. But, unfortunately, I can't share the name of my favorite pick in this space with you today. That's for Fast-Track Millionaire subscribers only.
But watch this space closely, because there's a ton of potential for investors here. In the meantime, if you'd like to get the name and ticker symbol of my pick, along with all of the rest of my Fast-Track research, go here.