Panasonic readies big push into US solar market

Japan’s Panasonic is at the start of a major push into the US residential solar market, as it looks to offset waning demand in its home market and take advantage of the trend in the US towards better-known module brands.

Panasonic was a major supplier of PV modules into the US last decade, but it pulled out of the market almost entirely in 2011 to take advantage of the Japanese solar boom sparked by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. 

Even after 2012, when Panasonic bolstered its 600MW of module production capacity in Japan with 320MW of additional capacity in Malaysia, the company was still “selling more into Japan than we could actually produce”, says Mukesh Sethi, manager of the solar group at Panasonic Eco Solutions North America.

There was little product left for the US market, and it didn’t help that around that time Chinese module makers began pressing into the US in a big way, pushing down prices.

But these days the global solar market looks very different. Demand in the Japanese residential market “has peaked”, Sethi says, while the US boom looks set to continue for many years.

“We think this is a perfect time to enter the US residential market,” Sethi tells Recharge.

Panasonic has been in discussions with potential US customers for the past six months – primarily module distributors – and last month began selling a new US-tailored panel into the market. At 1.6m², the new modules are larger than the ones it sells into Japan or Europe, reflecting larger average roof sizes in the US.

Panasonic’s high-efficiency modules, based on heterojunction technology combining monocrystalline and amorphous silicon, cost 5-10% more than standard panels, but can generate 30-40% more power over time, Sethi claims.

Key to Panasonic’s hopes for the US market is the recent trend away from third-party ownership of home solar systems – the preferred model of sector leaders like SolarCity and Sunrun – and towards outright system ownership by homeowners.

User-friendly leases and PPAs helped to ignite the US residential market, but over the long run it’s a much better deal for homeowners to buy their own systems, Sethi says. In most third-party ownership arrangements, “two-thirds or even three-quarters of the savings” are taken by the companies who install and own the systems.

The public is increasingly comfortable with PV technology, and it’s never been easier to obtain a competitive loan to buy a home solar system, he says. As more homeowners make their own decisions about which PV system to install, rather than relying on third-party owners, it will benefit “well recognised” brands like Panasonic.

“It only makes sense for Panasonic to be in the US market when people own their own panels,” Sethi says, claiming that the company’s modules break even compared to cheaper models in less than a year through the extra power they generate.

A large rooftop solar company may be willing to install a cheaper module today and risk having to send a technician out to replace it in the future. But “homeowners don’t want to worry about labour and replacement costs,” he says. “They want to put the best system on the roof and then not have to worry about it for 25 years.”

The US residential solar market is not going to abandon the third-party ownership model overnight, Sethi admits. But “the trend is moving in the right direction, which is very encouraging”.

Although Panasonic is among the world’s largest makers of Li-ion batteries, and is partnering with Tesla at the Gigafactory under construction in Nevada, the company is not currently selling a stationary storage solution into the US market, like it does in Japan.

But Panasonic is “definitely considering” rolling out a battery product for US homes in the future, Sethi says.