Investors Start to See a Solar Business Case

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- We're well on our way in the second renewable energy stock boom.

The first one happened before the Great Recession really got going, and it was mainly built on hype rather than substance.

The Claymore/MAC Global Solar Index ETF ( TAN) was selling at nearly $30/share in 2008, but if you bought then you've been hammered. Today's price looks reasonable, $23.90, if you ignore a 1:10 reverse split early in 2012. Early investors have lost 90% of their money.

Results like that soured many investors on renewable energy stocks. Since 2008 the energy excitement has been on frackers like Chesapeake Energy ( CHK)and Apache ( APA). But if you'd invested in either of those names in 2008, you're also down -- 54% in the case of Chesapeake, 23% in the case of Apache.

Shorten your time horizons, looking only to 2013, and it's a different story. Chesapeake Energy is up almost 20% in that time, with hopes rising of finding assets in what former CEO Aubrey McClendon left, but the rest of the oilpatch has seen minimal gains while TAN is up 48%.

The star holding of the ETF, and of any renewable portfolio, is First Solar ( FSLR), which has also been on a wild ride. Again, if you caught it in 2008 you're down 83%. But since April the shares have been on fire, up 68%.

What happened? The ferocious market shake-out in China ended. Solar bears here complained they were dropping prices to the floor, but they were also dropping costs, and the polysilicon panels made by companies like Yingli Green Energy ( YGE), the biggest of the survivors, now cost about 50 cents/watt, which means cost parity with grid energy in many parts of the United States.

First Solar has done its best to keep up, but it uses cadmium-telluride, or CdT, not polysilicon, so it's done this heavy lifting on its own. What got the bulls excited was its April investment meeting noted GreenTech Media, where it said it said it had more than 20% margins and would generate cash flow of nearly $1 billion in 2013.

The best news is that First Solar knows how to move panels in quantity, building utility-scale projects and selling them on to companies like Mid-American Energy, a unit of Berkshire-Hathaway ( BRK.A). With Mid-American's purchase of a Nevada utility, it's easy to speculate there will be more deals in that pipeline.

But hidden in all the good news, and the company claims it can get its costs down to 40 cents/watt by 2017, is the fact that present costs are closer to 65 cents/watt. That's still higher than what polysilicon costs. If you're bidding a project with First Solar panels and your rival is using Yingli, he's getting the deal.

The U.S. does have one competitive polysilicon player, SunPower ( SPWR), which has been 60% owned by Total, the French oil company, since 2011. The price on that deal was $1.4 billion, wrote Bloomberg but the French are looking pretty good right now -- the company's current market cap is $3.27 billion.

SunPower claims its panels already boast 24% efficiency. It's investing in alternative technologies as a venture capitalist, noted GreenTech Media, and it has a diverse channel, including residential customers.

All of which means China does not yet have this market sewn-up. There are huge breakthroughs ahead, as I've noted before, and the ride is going to get rough.

But each boom brings us a little further down the road to energy abundance, and once abundance is here, renewables can keep pushing costs down in ways an oilman can only envy.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.