This Week in Solar

By Travis Hoium Markets Fool.com

There's a lot to get to this week in solar, so let's dive right in.

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The fast and furious progress of solar energy

In 2011, then Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy Steven Chu launched the SunShot initiative with a goal of cutting the cost of installing a utility-scale solar system for $1 per watt by 2020. At the time, I called the 74% reduction in the cost of solar in a decade "an audacious goal."

Image source: Getty Images.

Less than six years later and three years ahead of schedule, I'm here to say that I underestimated the solar industry. Projects are being built for less than $1 per watt today, and cost reductions continue to amaze even the most bullish observers. Everything from solar panels to inverters to permitting costs have come down in the last six years with the SunShot program helping with the reductions. And $1 per-watt solar will lead to a whole new surge in demand, which is very bullish for solar companies around the world.

Apple and NV Energy find common ground

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Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A)(NYSE: BRK-B) subsidiary NV Energy has taken its share of lumps from the renewable energy industry over the last few years. Solar advocates helped drive a ballot measure in November that will give customers more choice than buying energy from the monopoly. And casino companies, which are its largest customers, are starting to cut their ties to the utility and buy energy elsewhere.

NV Energy may be learning that it can't take such an adversarial approach to renewable energy and customers' desires to buy renewables after agreeing to help Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) build a 200 MW solar power plant by early 2019. The utility will buy energy from the solar plant and sell the energy to Apple for a data center in Reno, continuing Apple's growth in solar adoption.

Corporate customers will likely be big drivers of renewable energy in 2017, demanding clean energy to power their businesses around the country. Maybe utilities are finally learning that it's better to go along with the renewable-energy revolution than fight it and lose their customers to someone else.

Don't freak out about the ITC... yet

The solar industry is abuzz with speculation about the solar investment tax credit (ITC), which helps fund every solar project in the country today. The subsidy was extended at the end of 2015 and is currently set to start stepping down from 30% in 2019 to a permanent 10% from commercial projects, and 0% for residential projects, starting in 2022.

It's no secret that most of the new Trump Administration is less in favor of renewable energy than the past administration, so there's concern the ITC could be in trouble. But comments from Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin in support of wind subsidies, and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson in relation to climate change, have eased some of those tensions.

Keep in mind that the ITC stepdown is current law and would require an act of Congress, including 60 votes in the Senate, to be repealed. I think that's unlikely to happen, especially when you consider the 200,000+ jobs in solar and extreme popularity of the energy source. The ITC seems safe, despite the likelihood that it's unpopular inside the White House. Unless something changes, solar investors can breathe a sigh of relief.

News and notes

Here are the other notable items of the week that investors shouldn't lose sight of.

Eos Energy Storage and Siemens (NASDAQOTH: SIEGY) announced a partnership to integrate, install, and service utility-scale energy-storage solutions. It's hard to state how big it is that a giant in electricity-distribution equipment is taking a role in energy storage, which will help solar provide more value to the grid. We don't know exactly what will happen with the partnership in terms of costs or demand for utility-scale storage, but the fact that it's on the radar of giants of the industry is big for renewable energy.

Pattern Energy Group (NASDAQ: PEGI) announced the closing of $350 million in senior notes due 2024 with a 5.875% interest rate. The financing will help the company pay down short-term debt and acquire more renewable-energy projects. If this is a sign that yieldco financing is opening up, it would be good for the entire industry.

Canadian Solar (NASDAQ: CSIQ) signed a contract earlier this week with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to sell energy from a 60 MW solar farm over the course of 20 years starting in mid-2017. There haven't been a lot of big contract signings in the U.S. over the past year, so any movement in the space is notable, even if 60 MW is only about 1% of Canadian Solar's annual manufacturing capacity.

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Travis Hoium owns shares of Apple and Berkshire Hathaway (B shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and Berkshire Hathaway (B shares). The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2018 $90 calls on Apple and short January 2018 $95 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.