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U.S. developers installed more than double the amount of solar-panel generating systems in 2011 than the previous year, at a value of $8.5 billion, up 70% over 2010, although manufacturing slipped, according to a new study.
While federal and state subsidies and clean-energy policies helped drive demand for solar power, falling prices for solar panels and cheaper solar-power systems also played a role, according to the study released Wednesday by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research.
The subsidies, low prices and attractive returns drove new investments in solar power by large energy companies, including NRG Energy Inc. (NRG) NextEra Energy Inc. (NEE), Exelon Corp. (EXC) and the MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. unit of Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRKA, BRKB). But a global oversupply of solar-panel manufacturing capacity, primarily in China, has driven down prices, and forced solar-panel manufacturers' profits and stock prices lower.
Globally, solar-panel prices fell last year by about 50%, while in the U.S., the average price of a complete solar system fell by 3.6% for homes, nearly 14% for commercial systems and by 21% for utility systems, according to the report.
U.S. solar-panel manufacturing shrunk by 4% in 2011 compared to the previous year, to a little more than 1,200 megawatts of solar panels, according to the report. Production of polysilicon--a key raw material for most solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity--was flat, at more than 40,600 metric tons.
The U.S. installed 1,855 megawatts of solar panels in 2011, up from 887 megawatts in 2010, according to the report.
U.S. production of solar cells fell by nearly 12% to 970 megawatts, while production of solar wafers, a key solar-cell ingredient, fell by more than a third to about 380 megawatts, according to the study.
The report predicted the U.S. solar market will continue growing and its share of global solar-panel installations will grow from 5% in 2010 and 7% in 2011, to 15% by 2016. By then, the U.S. and China are likely to be the leading solar-power markets, as Europe--which has dominated the global market for the last few years--"slows down," the report said.
The study's authors acknowledged a "storm of negative attention" following the high-profile collapse in September of California solar-panel maker and federal loan recipient Solyndra LLC has made the solar industry a political target. Nevertheless, they noted the controversy raised "valuable questions" such as whether solar-panel manufacturing should be done in the U.S.
In October, SolarWorld AG's (SWV.XE) U.S. unit and six other U.S. solar firms filed a trade complaint that accuses Chinese solar-panel makers of dumping and receiving illegal government subsidies. The U.S. Commerce Department has been investigating the case, in tandem with a related investigation at the International Trade Commission.
The Solar Energy Industries Association, the U.S. solar industry's largest trade group, hasn't taken a position on the trade case. But the group noted in the report the solar-power market is global and predicted "some portions of the value chain will find domestic manufacturing attractive, while others will not."
One factor driving U.S. solar-panel installations in 2011 was rapid growth of solar-power plants built for utilities, which almost quadrupled in 2011 to nearly 760 megawatts, according to the report.
California remains the nation's largest solar market, while New Jersey continues to be No. 2, followed by Arizona, according to the report. New York made the top-10 list in 2011 and Texas moved to ninth place from 10th place in 2010.
The average price in 2011 of a residential solar-panel system in the U.S. fell by just 3.6% from a year earlier to $6.18 a watt, while the price of a commercial system fell nearly 14% to $4.92 a watt, according to the report. The average price of a utility-scale solar system fell by 21% year-over-year to $3.20 a watt.
-By Cassandra Sweet, Dow Jones Newswires; 415-439-6468; firstname.lastname@example.org