Energy Future

Why Asia’s utilities may welcome solar disruption

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for
Employees place a solar panel into a box at the Tata Power Solar Systems manufacturing plant in Bangalore, India.
Dhiraj Singh | Bloomberg | Getty Images

While adopting solar power in developed markets usually weighs on utility incumbents there, Asia's players are likely to reap benefits, Bernstein Research said.

In developed markets, increasing solar installations means the power grid sees declining demand for daytime power, dinging the "sweet spot" for selling electricity in competitive markets, Bernstein said in a note Monday. Distribution utilities, which recover the high costs of their infrastructure by volume-based charges, also take a hit as they lose their natural monopoly, the report said.

But within Asia, it's a completely different story, Bernstein said.

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"Solar adoption in developing markets improves grid stability, lowers reliance on imported fuel, acts as a hedge against rising energy costs, and improves the environment. It is an unambiguous positive," it said.

The reason for the difference? Utilities in small and developing markets typically have a monopoly, Bernstein said.

"The costs of building power stations or distribution networks are sufficiently high that rarely would a developing economy wish to incur these costs twice. This has meant that – in many Asian economies – power utility returns are regulated," it said. In places such as India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand, "more solar simply lowers peak power demand and reduces the need for construction of gas-fired power plants and improves grid reliability," it said.

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In energy-intensive economies relying heavily on energy imports, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and China, solar benefits the primarily state-owned utilities because it eases the twin constraints of high fuel costs and high power-demand growth, Bernstein said.

"Solar hedges long-term energy costs, reduces demand for imported energy and lowers the pressure to expand nuclear," it said, adding it also improves their current account.

Bernstein expects Asia's adoption of solar to increase as within the region, it is now cheaper than Brent oil or LNG on a per MMBTU, or million British thermal unit, basis.

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"Solar is now cheap enough that for something like four billion people, it's simply cheap, clean, reliable, convenient energy," Bernstein said. "We believe that adoption everywhere is going to accelerate over the next five years."

To be sure, it isn't entirely clear that Asian utility operators will benefit universally.

"It's going to vary from country to country," depending on the regulatory regime, said Steve Schmida, managing director at international development and sustainability consultancy SSG Advisors. He expects countries such as the Philippines, which can't meet demand growth, will benefit most.

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"The price point (of solar) has maybe not quite hit the inflection point, but we're anticipating quite a bit of growth in solar," Schmida said, although he doesn't believe the cost has fallen quite as low as for oil and gas in the region just yet.

There's also another potential headwind for solar in Asia, he noted. "It's not only competing with oil and gas. It's also competing with biomass, which is becoming price competitive in certain segments," Schmida said. "It's not just competing against other traditional (energy sources). It's also competing against other renewables."

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1