Since the downturn of gas prices in September 2014, focus on alternative energy has largely been placed on the backburner. This trend has reverberated across numerous industries. In the automotive market, for example, sales of hybrid electric vehicles in the United States have been on a steady decline since topping out in 2013, with the U.S. Department of Energy reporting a 28 percent decrease to under 385,000 units sold in 2015[(1)]. One segment that has been able to more successfully navigate this evolving market landscape, however, has been the solar energy sector. Driven by innovative market leaders such as SolarWindow Technologies, Inc. (OTC: WNDW) (WNDW Profile), Corning, Inc. (NYSE: GLW), Tesla, Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA), Canadian Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ: CSIQ) and First Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR), global solar power capacity continues to expand. Roughly two-thirds of worldwide solar capacity has been installed since January 2011, according to research by Green Tech Media[(2)].
Despite this expansion, the North American solar market still has plenty of room to grow. In the U.S. alone, there are roughly 5 million commercial structures that currently consume, approximately 40 percent of the nation’s electricity. The vast majority of that power generation capacity is still linked to fossil-fueled power plants, leading to the creation of considerable greenhouse gas emissions. Combatting this environmental hazard remains a priority for global leaders, regardless of energy costs. For proof, look no further than Congress’s 2015 decision to extend the solar tax credit at its current rate, which applies to both residential and commercial systems, through 2019[(3)].
With a sustainable market established, leading players in the solar power sector are now relying on cutting-edge technologies and groundbreaking ideas to grab market share. SolarWindow Technologies, Inc. (WNDW) is taking a new approach to power generation. While most standalone solar power installations on commercial structures are placed on rooftops, typical building footprints severely limit the number of photovoltaic (PV) units that can be installed in that fashion. Conversely, SolarWindow is developing a transparent, electricity-generating coating to be applied to standard window glass. In addition to providing significantly more space for PV cells on large commercial structures, the company’s developmental product offers a lower threshold for sun than traditional solar panels, meaning that power generation could be possible with a much smaller input of sunlight.
SolarWindow’s power model data puts this lower threshold into perspective. For a PV system installed on a 50-story building in Phoenix, Arizona, the company estimates that its first-of-their-kind electricity-generating windows could power an equivalent of 130 homes[(4)]. The next most efficient chemistry included in the study, amorphous silicon, could power the equivalent of just 11 homes, per company data. As for the environmental impact of SolarWindow’s developmental system, the company estimates that a single installation could prevent the equivalent of 2.2 million miles of CO2 vehicle pollution, about 10-times more than a traditional solar power generation system.
The ongoing development of SolarWindow’s advanced technology into tangible, marketable products is being driven by a diverse leadership team with experience spanning a full range of related sectors. The company’s award-winning researchers and engineers have authored more than 1,000 scientific publications, and Dr. Alastair Livesey, one of SolarWindow’s founding directors, specialized in the commercialization of new energy breakthroughs, at the world’s largest producer of flexible solar panels as recently as 2012. Bolstered by the expertise of Kelly Provence, an Interstate Renewable Energy Council-certified commercial and PV design and installation guru, along with Dr. Christopher Harris, an intellectual property and technology licensing specialist, SolarWindow Technologies has a team in place to rapidly advance its developmental PV products from the design room to the production floor and beyond.
Another company that has capitalized on the surge in solar power installations is Corning, Inc. (NYSE: GLW), the manufacturer of specialty glasses and related products. Corning’s forays into the solar space have come in multiple shapes and sizes. Recently, the international behemoth owned a 50-percent stake in Dow Corning, a joint-venture with The Dow Chemical Company, (DOW) focused on the manufacture of silicone products. These products are widely implemented in solar panel and PV applications due to their renowned UV stability and moisture resistance. Corning sold its position in Dow Corning to Dow Chemical for $4.8 billion and other considerations in December 2015. Perhaps one of the most well-known product innovations related to this joint-venture was Dow’s solar shingle line, the Powerhouse Solar System 2.0. Similar to SolarWindow’s inventive technology, Dow’s Powerhouse system implemented building-integrated photovoltaics, which combine solar modules with construction materials. Unlike SolarWindow’s developmental product, however, Dow’s solar shingles generated electricity much less efficiently than stand-alone solar modules, leading to the company’s discontinuation of the product line in July 2016 [(5)].
While Corning has made moves toward shrinking its presence in the solar power space in recent years, Tesla, Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA) has spent the past couple of years increasing its footprint in the alternative energy market. On April 30, 2015, the electric car manufacturer introduced its groundbreaking Powerwall home battery system. In late 2016, Tesla pushed the envelope once again, when visionary CEO, Elon Musk, introduced not only a second generation Powerwall system, but the company’s PV-integrated Solar Roof, which is set to hit the market later this year. Tesla’s take on the building-integrated photovoltaic segment may seem familiar to followers of Dow Chemical, but Musk and his team, including the members who were brought over as part of the company’s 2016 acquisition of SolarCity, have already hyped a few key differences that they expect will help Tesla’s Solar Roof stand out from the competition. “First of all, I’ve never seen a solar roof that I would actually want; they’re weird,” Musk noted in a November 2016 conference call [(6)]. “Every one of them that I’ve seen is worse than a normal roof, without exception. So unless you’re going to beat a roof on aesthetics, why bother?” Much like the design of SolarWindow’s aesthetically-polished PV coating, Tesla’s Solar Roof is expected to be both functionally superior to existing solar shingles and visually appealing.
SolarWindow and Tesla may be pushing the solar power industry toward the future with their design-stage offerings, but the sector is also populated with mainstays that are striving to capitalize on its sustained growth. Canadian Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ: CSIQ) is currently one of the world’s largest solar power companies and a leading manufacturer of solar PV modules serving more than 90 countries around the globe. At the end of 2016, Canadian Solar boasted a module manufacturing capacity of 5.8 GW, but the company’s recent financial performance has clocked in well below analyst targets. Investopedia attributed this slump to ‘weak fundamentals and a technical breakdown,’ among other factors [(7)]. Despite these struggles, Canadian Solar has continued to confirm its presence at the top of the competitive solar energy space in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the company announced its reception of $20 million in unsecured funding from the China and Portuguese-speaking Countries Cooperation and Development Fund, in support of the development of numerous eligible installations in Brazil. Additionally, Canadian Solar secured its first Power Purchase Agreements with the Solar Energy Corporation of India, a public sector undertaking of the Government of India, further expanding the company’s presence on the global stage.
First Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR) is another company capitalizing on a position at the top of the solar energy market. As a vertically integrated provider of comprehensive PV systems, with assets spanning the sourcing of raw materials, through to end-of-life module recycling, First Solar was named one of ‘The World’s Top 4 Alternative Energy Companies’, in an article published by Investopedia earlier this month [(8)]. Just last year, First Solar made headlines when it announced a massive restructuring initiative that both, altered its product roadmap and accelerated the research and development of its highly-anticipated Series 6 module [(9)]. The move, which included the cancellation of its Series 5 modules, is expected to put First Solar in a challenging position throughout this year ahead of the anticipated 2018 launch. However, the proposed benefits of the company’s Series 6 line, including a manufacturing cost that’s about 40 percent less than the current Series 4 modules and conversion efficiencies in excess of 18 percent (as compared to 16.5 percent for Series 4), reiterate the importance of innovation to the future of the alternative energy market.
Investing in solar power may not be as attractive as it was a few years ago, but the work being done by industry innovators like SolarWindow Technologies, Tesla, and First Solar is setting the stage for a brighter tomorrow. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar power is on course to be the fastest-growing renewable energy source through 2018, with total utility-scale capacity forecast to increase by 44 percent, during the two-year period ending on December 31, 2018 [(10)]. The Solar Energy Industries Association suggests that, by 2021, the U.S. solar market could triple in size to power the equivalent of 22 million homes [(11)]. With widespread agreement about the market’s huge potential, now is a great time to put the solar power industry’s most encouraging players on your investment radar.