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By Abigail Ross Hopper

There is never a dull moment in the solar industry, but one thing that has been consistent is growth. The Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research Q2 2017 U.S. Solar Market Insight report shows just that. The U.S. solar industry added more than 2,044 megawatts of new capacity in the first quarter of this year, marking the sixth straight quarter in which more than two gigawatts of solar was installed.

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One megawatt of solar power was installed every 32 minutes in the U.S. from July to September, for a record total of 4,143 megawatts of new, clean energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and GTM Research's U.S. Solar Market Insight report.

That brings total installed solar capacity in the U.S. to 35.8 gigawatts, enough to power 6.5 million homes. Solar power may double from 2015 to 2016. SEIA said.

Rapid growth in solar power installations continued in 2016.Source: Solar Energy Industries Association

"The United States solar market just shattered all previous quarterly solar photovoltaic (PV) installation records," stated SEIA.

Through the end of September, solar accounted for 39 percent of all new electric generating capacity brought on-line in the U.S. Both utility-scale installations and residential installations grew strongly. Electric power utilities accounted for 77 percent of additions to the grid, while both corporate and residential customers added capacity as well.

"The solar market now enjoys an economically-winning hand that pays off both financially and environmentally, and American taxpayers have noticed," said Tom Kimbis, SEIA's interim president.

Source: SEIA

Community solar represents another growing trend. In these programs, both residential and business customers share a large, central installation. These work well for renters and condo owners, homeowners who can't install rooftop solar panels or owners of historic buildings that are not permitted to alter the structure.

Currently, 25 states have active community solar projects, serving both cities and smaller communities. In Boulder, Colorado, the sold-out Boulder Cowdery Meadows Solar Array generates 496,455 kilowatts. A 52-kilowatt installation is up and running in Wayne, Maine, serving nine Central Maine Power customers. Other projects can be found in Orlando, Seattle and Springfield, Missouri.

Community solar is expected to add 200 megawatts this year, a fourfold increase over 2015 according to SEIA. Much of the demand is being driven by the nosedive in solar system costs. Overall pricing fell by 6.9 percent in the 3rd quarter, with costs now below $3 per watt.

"The phenomenal boom in U.S. solar is being driven by dramatically lowering solar costs, to the point where solar is in many cases now the most affordable power and smartest investment for homeowners, businesses, and cities," said Glen Brand, Maine chapter director for the Sierra Club. "And this is despite the enormous subsidies for dirty fossil fuels and the coordinated attacks on state solar policy by monopoly, private utilities."

Municipalities, which are often large users of electricity for government buildings, streetlights and other needs are adding cost-effective solar as well. The village of Minster, Ohio, was the first. A 3-megawatt solar array is saving the town $1 million per month.

Peterborough, New Hampshire, completed its 1-megawatt installation in 2015 and Portland, Maine, plans to build a 660-kilowatt solar project on an a closed landfill that will power city hall and the 1,900-seat Merrill Auditorium.

Looking ahead, SEIA forecasts a decline in new installations in 2017 and 2018. Some near-term pullbacks are due to delays in utility connection projects, which currently see an 8-gigawatt backlog. SEIA expects growth to resume in 2019.

The solar industry employs 209,000 workers in the U.S. In contrast, the oil industry has shed 350,000 jobs as the price of oil has collapsed since 2014.

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[Click here for the latest on the Dakota Access Pipeline: 141 Arrested During Police Raid of Camp Halting Construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.]

Actor Mark Ruffalo and Native Renewables founder Wahleah Johns presented Standing Rock Sioux tribal elders with mobile solar panels on trailers, bringing clean power to the protest encampment where the largest gathering of Native Americans in modern history is taking a stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Jon WankThe Solutions Project

"This pipeline is a black snake that traverses four states and 200 waterways with fracked Bakken oil," said Ruffalo, co-founder of The Solutions Project, which works to accelerate the transition to 100 percent clean and renewable energy.

"We know from experience that pipelines leak, explode, pollute and poison land and water. But it doesn't have to be that way."

The solar trailers will provide clean energy to power medical tents and other critical facilities for Native American protesters and their allies at the encampment. The trailers symbolize a healthy, equitable, prosperous energy future made possible by clean renewable energy.

"Water is life," said Johns, a Navajo leader. "By leading a transition to energy that is powered by the sun, the wind and water, we ensure a better future for all of our people and for future generations."

Johns' company, Native Renewables, promotes low-cost clean energy solutions for Native American families throughout the U.S., with an emphasis on job creation and on benefiting the community as a whole. The trailers were built by members of the Navajo nation and were financed by Empowered by Light and Give Power.

Research led by Stanford Prof. Mark Jacobson, another Solutions Project co-founder, shows that it would be technically possible and economically beneficial to transition to 100 percent clean renewable energy in each and every state across the country. In North Dakota, for example, wind and solar energy would be the primary sources of clean power and transitioning to 100 percent renewables would create 30,000 jobs.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe says it was not sufficiently consulted when the Dakota Access Pipeline was in the planning stages. The pipeline endangers the tribe's water supply—and the water supply of millions of other people, as well, given the pipeline's planned crossing under the Missouri River. The pipeline's construction has already marred sacred lands, including burial sites. The Standing Rock Sioux and their allies—including indigenous people from across the U.S. and around the world—see it as a clear threat to both the tribe's cultural heritage and the basic human right to clean water.

"Around the world, more than 80 percent of the forests and lands with protected waterways and rich biodiversity are held by indigenous tribes. This is no coincidence," Ruffalo said. "As so many of us suffer from polluted water, air and land in our rural and urban communities, the water defenders at Standing Rock are showing us another way."

By Sean Gallagher

Three cheers for solar in Florida! Amendment 4 officially passed on Aug. 30. We found the magic policy lever and now Floridians will begin reaping the benefits of low cost, clean solar energy. You can expect to see solar projects popping up all over the Sunshine State, right? Not exactly. In fact, the fight is just beginning for the future of solar energy in Florida.

Workers installing solar panels at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida.Solar Source

First—a quiz. Below is the text for each of the solar-related constitutional amendments. One amendment was endorsed by solar companies and environmental groups, and the other is supported by the state's major utilities. Can you distinguish one from the other?

Option A: This amendment establishes a right under Florida's constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use. State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do. (Source: Ballotpedia)

Option B: Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution to authorize the Legislature, by general law, to exempt from ad valorem taxation the assessed value of solar or renewable energy source devices subject to tangible personal property tax and to authorize the Legislature, by general law, to prohibit consideration of such devices in assessing the value of real property for ad valorem taxation purposes. This amendment takes effect Jan. 1, 2018, and expires on Dec. 31, 2037. (Source: Ballotpedia)

Confused? Unless you're a solar energy policy wonk, Option A's clear language on a consumer's right to go solar is likely more palatable than Option B's use of the phrase "ad valorem."

Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida.Solar Source

Let's dig a little deeper. Option A is actually the text of Amendment 1 which is on the Florida ballot in November's general election. Amendment 1 is publicly supported by Consumers for Smart Solar—again, to the untrained eye, a seemingly pro-solar advocacy group.

In reality, Consumers for Smart Solar is a front group for the largest electric utilities in the state of Florida, think Duke Energy and Florida Power and Light. That doesn't automatically mean that the group or amendment is trying to "kill solar," but it merits a closer look at the language and national trends in solar policy to uncover its true intentions.

The first sentence is relatively innocuous: "This amendment establishes a right under Florida's constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use."

Consumer beware: this language does not create a new right for a customer to go solar, it is simply restating existing rights.

Millhopper Library in Gainesville, Florida.Solar Impact

The second sentence is where things get complicated. A standard talking point from electric utility trade groups across the country is that consumers that opt to have solar energy for their homes disproportionately burden customers who do not have solar systems.

In the short term, many costs are fixed for electric utilities. By the nature of the utility business model, these fixed costs are spread out across customer classes. In exchange for providing reliable service, monopoly utilities are allowed to recover their capital investments and receive a modest rate of return. That business model is likely the reason you have utility company stocks in your 401K.

This "cost shift" issue in the second sentence of Amendment 1 incorrectly assumes that there is indeed a cost imposed by consumers that choose to go solar. Solar advocates across the country are working to change this one-sided assumption by including a more balanced approach that quantifies all costs and benefits.

Solar provides many benefits to the electricity grid including producing energy at peak times of the day, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping utilities avoid costly capital investments ultimately borne by ratepayers.

The solar industry is the underdog in this fight and we need solar supporters across the country to expose Amendment 1 for what many are calling "a wolf in sheep's clothing."

"Masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative, this proposed constitutional amendment, supported by some of Florida's major investor-owned electric utility companies, actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo," Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in a dissent back in March.

So Florida voters, here's what should be today's biggest test takeaway: Know what you're really voting for and vote "No" in November on Amendment 1.

By Tom Kimbis, Solar Energy Industries Association

It seems like clockwork at this point. With each new Solar Market Insight (SMI) report, the solar industry sees more historic growth and this new report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is no different.

An array of solar panels supplies energy for necessities at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Jeremiah Handeland

The solar industry installed 2,051 megawatts of PV in Q2 2016, bringing the total nationwide capacity to 31.6 gigawatts (see Figure 1.1 below) and making this quarter the best non-quarter 4 ever for the industry. There is now enough solar installed to power more than 6.2 million U.S. homes and reduce carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons each year.

A new solar installation was completed every 82 seconds in the first half of 2016, equaling more than 1,000 installs every day. This frequency is what will take the current total of 1.1 million solar systems, which took 40 years to reach, to 2 million systems by 2018.

The outlook for the rest of 2016 is just as eye-opening. The industry expects to add 13.9 GW of new capacity, which would be an 85 percent growth rate over 2015, solar's largest year ever. The U.S added 4 GW of capacity in the first half of 2016, but the industry will add nearly 10 GW in the final six months, which is 34 percent more than was installed in all of 2015, a record year.

The industry is growing faster than ever and here is what else we saw in this SMI report:

  • Solar prices fell across all market segments, with declines ranging from 2-7 percent (see Figure 2.3).
  • As a whole, the price of solar is 18 percent lower than it was one year ago and 63 percent lower than it was 5 years ago.
  • Solar represented 26 percent of all new electric generating capacity brought online in the first half of 2016.
  • There are now 1,162,000 individual solar systems installed in the U.S., including more than a million residential systems.
  • The utility-scale sector installed more than 1 GW for the third consecutive quarter and will install nearly 10 GW by the end of this year.
  • Thanks to strong growth by non-traditional markets like Texas and Utah, the residential sector experienced another record quarter, installing 650 MW.

The Q3 Solar Market Insight Report provides a clear vision of where the solar industry stands today and where we're headed in the future. By 2021, the industry is projected to nearly quadruple, while more than doubling its employment numbers and generating billions in investment. The state of solar is strong and the potential for future growth is even more encouraging.

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