More information is emerging about the jaw-dropping solar prices bid into a major tender being held by the Abu Dhabi electricity authority, and it underlines just how the stunning fall in prices will change the conversation, and a lot of business and policy planning, about energy markets.
As we reported on Tuesday, the world’s biggest solar module manufacturer JinkoSolar and Japanese industrial giant Marubeni set a new record low solar price with a bid of $US24.20/MWh ($A32.11/MWh) for a solar plant of more than 350MW in Abu Dhabi.
But it was not the only bid to slash the previous record low price of $US29/MWh in Chile, set just last month, and a previous sub $US30/MWh bid in the United States Emeritus. According to PV Magazine, two other consortium, one led by French nuclear giant EdF, also beat the previous record mark.
And the prices could fall even further, with JinkoSolar and Marubeni reportedly offering to push the price even lower – to $US23/MWh – if they can gain further scale and be allowed to build a solar plant of more than 1.1 gigawatt, which would be the biggest solar farm outside of China.
This table above – first published by PV Magazine – illustrates the bidding range in the tender for a new solar farm to help power a major new township being built in the north of the emirate. It also shows that each bidder is anticipating making an annual return of 7 per cent, despite the low prices.
That suggests the projects are financially viable, which is important because each time solar prices have been bid lower the offers have been met with howls of derision by less cost-competitive rivals.
There are several factors that allow these low bids. One is the low cost of finance in the UAE, and the low cost of labour. The other factor is the anticipated surplus in solar module production expected next year, and which is tipped to bring the price of modules down by as much as 50 per cent in the next 18 months.
Interestingly, JinkoSolar is one of those companies adding significant amounts of production in the next 12 months. It has not commented publicly on the Abu Dhabi bid, but its bid could be seen as an effort to ensure a market for its excess production.
Not that anyone thinks that this will be a temporary fall. Frank Wouters, the former head of Abu Dhabi based renewable energy firm Masdar, said this week that prices would not rebound.
“We’re still learning how to further reduce the cost of solar cells and other components as well as operation and maintenance cost … So there’s no reason why the cost of solar will ever increase again.”
And there are some more fascinating points around the solar prices bid in this auction.
It means that the cost of solar PV in the UAE is around one third of the price of gas generation, which makes up the overwhelming majority of current electricity supply. That underpins why UAE is keen to build as much solar as it can, and keep the gas for the profitable export market.
The solar bids must also be causing some soul-searching at EdF. Its offer of $US25.33/MWh for the Abu Dhabi solar plant is just over one fifth of the price (£92.50, or $US120/MWh) it demanded for the new nuclear power plant Hinkley Point C in the UK.
And that nuclear price is over and above the huge loan guarantees, insurance backing from the government and other subsidies piled on to the proposed nuclear plant.
(And before all the nuclear boosters get on line to talk about back-up for renewables and the qualities of nuclear “baseload”, remember that the UK grid operator said the cost of back up for Hinkley would total around $12 billion over the life of the project).
That cost differential is perhaps one reason why EdF is expressing a lot of enthusiasm about solar, storage technologies, and wind energy, which recent bids have also shown is significantly cheaper than the nuclear option. Indeed, Hinkley Point is already being branded as the biggest “white elephant” in UK history.
EdF recently won a contract for 49MW of battery storage with National Grid in the UK, is building the biggest wind farm in France and the first three offshore wind farms in that country.
As we noted on Tuesday, the slump in the cost of solar PV is being accompanied by record low prices for offshore wind, onshore wind and solar towers and storage, along with the continuing dramatic falls in the cost of battery storage.
“This analysis explains why renewables are already the cheapest option in a number of markets. This trend is only likely to spread as the growth of renewables undermines the economics of fossil fuels,” said Paul Dowling co-author of the report.
“Policy-makers and investors really need to question out dated assumptions on technology costs that do not factor in the direction of travel post-Paris,” added Carbon Tracker’s head of research James Leaton.
“Planning for business-as-usual load factors and lifetimes for new coal and gas plants is a recipe for stranded assets.”