A key selling point that made solar energy the fastest-growing power source in the world—rapidly decreasing costs—has hit a speed bump. Solar module prices have risen 18% since the start of the year after falling by 90% over the previous decade. The reversal, fueled by a quadrupling in the cost of the key raw material polysilicon, threatens to delay projects and slow uptake of solar power just as several major governments are finally throwing their weight behind it in an effort to slow climate change.

Rising Costs

Solar panels are getting more expensive for the second time in a decade

Source: PVInsights

“The disruption to solar hasn’t been this bad in more than a decade,” said Jenny Chase, lead solar analyst with clean energy research group BloombergNEF. “Developers and governments are going to have to stop expecting solar to get much cheaper quickly.” BNEF slightly lowered its forecast for solar buildout this year in a report last week, citing rising prices of materials including polysilicon as one reason.

For the solar industry, the timing couldn’t be worse. Renewable energy finally has a champion in the White House and ambitious climate goals have been announced across Europe and Asia. At the center of the crisis is polysilicon, an ultra-refined form of silicon, one of the most abundant materials on Earth that’s commonly found in beach sand. As the solar industry geared up to meet an expected surge in demand for modules, makers of polysilicon were unable to keep up. Prices for the purified metalloid have touched $25.88 a kilogram, from $6.19 less than a year ago, according to PVInsights.

Polysilicon prices are expected to remain strong through the end of 2022, according to Roth Capital Partners analysts including Philip Shen.  And the problem isn’t limited to polysilicon. The solar industry is facing “pervasive upstream supply-chain cost challenges,” panel manufacturer Maxeon Solar Technologies Ltd. said in April.