Shooting for the sun: the world’s biggest solar power developers

9 July 2018 (Last Updated February 6th, 2020 13:17)

The solar power market is developing rapidly, and a growing number of major players are operating at a global scale. According to a new report by GTM Research, the top 15 global solar PV developers are responsible for 26.4GW of installed utility-scale solar capacity. What is driving this growth, and who are the top five players in the global solar PV development game?

Shooting for the sun: the world’s biggest solar power developers
American company First Solar is truly global, with operations in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and Australia. Credit: Courtesy of First Solar

The solar industry has developed rapidly in recent years, with global capacity increasing from just 1.5GW in 2005 to 98GW in 2017. The size of solar power developers has grown alongside the market, from small companies to those employing thousands of people and installing huge arrays. GTM Research’s recent report, Top 15 Global Utility Solar PV Developers, details the world’s largest solar PV developers, which between them account for 20% of installed utility-scale solar capacity worldwide.

The growth in the market has been enabled by a number of factors, both economic and environmental.

“The key driver has been falling PV module costs; costs have come down by almost 90% during this period and are set to reduce further over the next five years or so,” says GTM Research senior solar analyst Tom Heggarty, who authored the report. “Policy is also, generally, favourable to solar PV and there are some pretty aggressive targets for growth in countries around the world; the cost reductions have helped governments justify these higher targets.”

The 15 utility-scale global solar PV developers now account for 26.4GW of operational capacity. Between them there is 40GW worth of capacity in the pipeline, as the solar expansion continues worldwide, in particular in the US where 44% of pipeline projects are planned.

There are a number of hallmarks of successful solar PV developers. They are “comfortable operating in an extremely competitive market, where returns are relatively low compared to other areas of the energy industry, though this is offset by solar’s low risk profile,” says Heggarty. “[They are] geographically diversified – concentrating solely on one market where there are currently favourable policies is a big risk; we’ve seen many instances where policies have been changed in an unfavourable way for PV. That can mean markets grind to a halt pretty quickly. [Solar developers must be] able to move quickly across different markets. There are new markets being opened up on a regular basis, so being nimble and being able to take advantage of new opportunities is really important.”

The pipeline projects give an insight into broader solar trends, such as the increase in interest in emerging markets. Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa were previously small markets, accounting for just 12% of the developer’s operational projects. As policy and investment has improved in recent years, however, the number of pipeline projects has increased. Emerging markets now account for 28% of pipeline projects for these 15 leading solar developers.

Below are profiles of the top five developers of solar PV, as identified by GTM Research.

CGL New Energy

It will surprise few that the biggest solar PV developer in the world is Chinese. Over the past few years China has become a global powerhouse of renewable energy and in 2017 alone installed 52.83GW of new solar capacity. This brings its cumulative installed capacity to 130.25GW, or 7.3% of the country’s energy mix.

CGL New Energy is one of many flourishing solar PV developers in China, and is listed as the top global solar PV developer in the world according to GTM’s research. China’s largest non-state-owned independent power producer has already deployed 5GW and has a further 7GW in the pipeline.

First Solar

American company First Solar is truly global, with operations in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and Australia. It has sold an impressive 17GW of solar power since it was founded in 1999. At present it has a total operational and development portfolio comprising 10GW of solar PV.

First Solar operates some of the largest solar plants in the world.  As a vertically integrated company, it manages many aspects of the solar PV industry, developing not only the PV panels themselves but the software packages essential for their management, along with operating and maintaining solar plants.

Canadian Solar

Over the past 17 years, Canadian Solar has deployed solar panels in over 100 countries, delivering over 26GW of solar power or 70 million PV modules. Currently, it employs 12,000 people in six continents and has 20 subsidiaries.

Canadian Solar is the third-largest utility-scale solar PV developer in the world, according to GTM’s report, with a total operational and development portfolio of 8GW of power. It has a proven history of bankability that makes it an attractive company, having been listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange since 2006.

Total (SunPower and Eren)

Unlike the other companies in the top five, Total is not focused solely on solar power but instead is the fourth-largest oil and gas company in the world. Through its efforts to diversify its portfolio it has also become the fourth-largest utility-scale solar PV developer, through its acquisitions of large shares of both SunPower and Eren.

Total became the majority stakeholder in SunPower in 2011 as part of its goal to increase its percentage of low-carbon businesses in its portfolio to 20% in the next 20 years. This was bolstered by its 2017 agreement with Eren, bringing it closer to its short-term aim of achieving 5GW of renewably sourced electricity capacity within the next five years.

“EREN RE’s momentum will allow us to accelerate our growth in solar energy and move us into the wind power market,” says Total president of gas, renewables and power Philippe Sauquet. “The agreement with EREN RE is a major step towards our objective of achieving 5GW of installed capacity in five years.”

SunEdison

Possibly the most surprising company on GTM’s list is SunEdison, listed as the fifth-biggest solar PV developer in the world. SunEdison was once the fastest growing solar developer in the US, but in 2016 it filed for bankruptcy. Since that point it has undergone a major overhaul, including $2.3bn of gross asset sales.

It emerged from bankruptcy earlier this year, as a privately held firm. “SunEdison emerges with a significantly smaller footprint and will continue to focus on monetizing its remaining assets,” according to a company statement. Despite such troubles, SunEdison remains one of the biggest utility-scale solar PV developers in the world according the GTM’s report. It had previously been set to become the first ever renewables supermajor, operating 11% of the $300m market in the US alone in 2015.

Work remains for both SunEdison and other solar PV developers in what is an increasingly competitive market to stay on top. “One of the key challenges for solar developers is that there’s very little barrier to entry in large-scale PV development, it can be extremely difficult for a company to find a niche and to dominate a market for a long period,” says Heggarty. “Increasingly, as margins for developers are squeezed, the role for institutional investors and pension funds – which have access to the lowest-cost capital – will become greater.”