This initiative could counteract the impact of the U.S. solar tariffs

Illustration of photovoltaic puzzle piece
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The impact of the solar tariffs remains a puzzle for many corporations.

Plenty of actual and digital ink has been spilled about the anticipated fallout from the Trump administration's new solar tariffs, including price hikes for future projects.

What this all means for corporate energy teams interested in procuring more renewable and clean power is still very much up in air — and no one is willing to speculate on the record so far — but the Rocky Mountain Institute has wasted no time spinning up an initiative meant to counteract potential cost increases.

The goal of the effort is simple: to encourage the design of more modular, standardized and preassembled products that can be installed more quickly and cost-effectively — ultimately at an installed price as low as 50 cents per watt. That includes panels, inverters and racks.

The proponents believe this approach could help cut costs by 20 cents per watt peak over the next 12 months. That represents about an 8 percent reduction in the average national average price for residential electricity, according to RMI calculations.

The initiative could have a particularly profound impact for on-site or smaller community-scale projects ranging from 1 megawatts to 10 MWs in size, according to the RMI team. "The corporate buyer will get a lower cost over time," said Kiernan Coleman, senior associate at RMI.

The idea was born out of a four-day RMI workshop in November and several dozen organizations are involved, including solar project developers (BayWa R.E., Cypress Creek and LightSource), investors and finance firms (Abraaj Group and Fir Tree Partners), manufacturers (OmCo, Quest Renewables and SolarEdge) software companies (Certain Solar and Kevala Analytics), utilities (National Grid), researchers (Georgia Tech) and even a city (San Diego). You can find a full list of those involved here.   

RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst likened the effort to the Department of Energy's highly successful SunShot Initiative — formed to back in 2011 with the aim of cutting the costs of solar energy by 75 percent. The effort met its goal three years earlier than anticipated. The cost savings should help offset prices increases on solar projects that might emerge as a result of the White House's decision to protect domestic solar manufacturers with a 30 percent tariff on imports.

"By taking a whole-systems approach that leverages standardization to enable preassembly and pre-engineering, the roadmap to delivering a low-cost, easy-to-understand product offering is clear," Kortenhorst said. "Furthermore, regional preassembly of solar equipment and components, which get trucked to local sites for efficient installation, creates new jobs and community investment."

The direct cost implications of the solar tariffs on corporate energy buyers still aren't clear. In a research note issued after the tariffs were adopted Jan. 22, Goldman Sachs analysts estimated that they could translate into a 3 percent to 7 percent cost increase for residential and utility-scale solar projects. It categorized the policy as "relatively benign."

Indeed, the industry continues to march forward.  LevelTen Energy launched an online marketplace targeted at renewable energy buyers — one that allows smaller organizations to buy smaller chunks of larger power purchase agreements — in late January. "For a long time, the solar sector, and the renewable sector at large, was nascent and immature," said LevelTen founder and CEO Bryce Smith. "That time has passed, and a tariff can't turn back time."

And corporate deals keep happening. For example, the Wynn Las Vegas resort just disclosed a deal with Enel Green Power North America under which it will buy the energy produced by a new 27-MW solar array in Stillwater, Nevada, scheduled to come online in the first half of this year.

Enel is investing $40 million in the installation; the power purchase agreement represents about 43,900 megawatt-hours of power, which represents about 75 percent of the resort's peak power demand. 

But the new trade policy, alongside the new U.S. tax law, has combined to create an uncertain climate for companies buying renewables as part of their carbon reduction emissions strategies. 

One corporate buyer representing a large technology company that has invested in multiple, substantial on-site installations indicated that he has requested re-bids of all open projects as a result of the recent policy changes. Others contacted for this article declined to comment on their ongoing strategy, citing ongoing uncertainty and legal concerns.