US solar PV manufacturing giant First Solar has made a bullish assessment of the Australian market, saying the utility-scale sector is about to take off. But it may have more attractive options in markets such as Chile.
James Hughes, First Solar’s recently appointed CEO, told analysts in a conference call on Wednesday night that First Solar was confident of capturing nearly one third of the Australian utility-scale solar market. It’s off to a good start, building the country’s first utility scale solar farm near Geraldton, the 10MW Greenough River plant which is nearly complete, and contracted to build the 159MW plant to be financed by AGL Energy via the Solar Flagships program.
“The solar market in Australia is just starting to take off,” Hughes said. “We’ve already been successful in the only two major competitive processes to date and believe we’re positioned to capture at least 30% market share going forward.” This compares with India, where First Solar expects to gain a 20 per cent market share.
Hughes said the two projects were a significant step forward for the utility-scale solar industry in Australia and testimony to the confidence new utility customers have in the performance of our technology in some of the hottest and harshest conditions in the world. “Furthermore, we are currently in negotiations for, or actively bidding on, other multi-megawatt projects in Australia,” he said.
The solar auction being conducted by the ACT Government is thought to account for at least one of these for First Solar. Hughes did not give forecasts on future Australian deployment, and Deutsche Bank analyst Vishal Shah thought that the comments were overly optimistic. “Longer term utility scale opportunity in Australia likely remains limited,” Shah wrote in a note.
First Solar is the world’s largest manufacturer of thin-film solar modules, and is competing head on in terms of costs and efficiency with the mostly silicon-based manufacturers in China. Hughes said that had First Solar’s plants run at full capacity in the past year, its cost per module would have been 64c/Watt, down 12 per cent from a year earlier.
“We maintain our system cost target of between $1.15 to $1.20 per watt in 2016, which we believe will drive the creation of fundamental demand for solar power without subsidies and generate a return on invested capital for the full year 2016 of 13 per cent to 17 per cent.
But one market that is already looking attractive without subsidies is Chile. Hughes said he had been in that country a week ago. It enjoyed the highest solar resource in the world, and the Atacama desert would generate capacity factors for PV of around 40 per cent, and in some parts of the grid, the prevailing price was more than $200/MWh because of the reliance on diesel and other liquid fuels.
“It’s an extremely exciting and intriguing market,” Hughes said. “It’s a market that we believe PV is competitive, absolutely, without subsidies. There is a tremendous backlog of mining projects in the country that require energy to be executed. We have active bids and negotiations under way, and we’re also actively working as a developer and in partnership with other developers.
“The economics are compelling. This is not a climate change story in Chile. This is a story of they absolutely need energy. The cheapest way they can get a big chunk of that energy is going to be through PV, and we’re there and fully expect that we will meet with a very high degree of success.”