January 23, 2015 at 5:00 am ET
When the President of the United States tells a nationwide audience in his annual State of the Union speech, “every three weeks, we bring on line as much solar as we did in all of 2008,” people everywhere sit up and take notice. And yet when you look at the solar success story in America, there’s a lot more to the plot line.
Every 2.5 minutes of every single day, the U.S. solar industry is helping both our economy and environment by flipping the switch on another completed solar project.
According to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the United States installed an estimated 7.4 gigawatts (GW) of solar last year – a 42 percent increase over 2013 – making it the best year ever for solar installations in America. What’s more, solar accounted for a record 53 percent of all new electric generation capacity installed in the first half of 2014, pushing solar to the front as the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in America.
Today, the U.S. has an estimated 20 GW of installed solar capacity, enough to effectively power nearly 4 million homes in the United States – or every single home in a state the size of Massachusetts or New Jersey – with another 20 GW in the pipeline for 2015-16.
In addition, innovative solar heating and cooling systems (SHC) are offering American consumers cost-efficient, effective options for meeting their energy needs, while lowering their utility bills. In fact, a report prepared for SEIAoutlines an aggressive plan to install 100 million SHC panels in the United States by 2050. This action alone would create 50,250 new American jobs and save more than $61 billion in future energy costs.
From an environmental perspective, solar helped to offset an estimated 20 million metric tons of harmful CO2 emissions in 2014, which is the equivalent of taking four million cars off U.S. highways, saving 2.1 billion gallons of gasoline or shuttering five coal-fired power plants.
Simply put, when looking at America’s energy future, solar can be a real game changer, providing more and more homes, businesses, schools and government entities across the United States with clean, reliable and affordable electricity, while also helping states to meet proposed new obligations under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act.
Today, the U.S. solar market segments include utility scale photovoltaic or PV (48 percent); utility scale concentrating solar power, also known as CSP (9 percent); non-residential PV (26 percent); and residential PV (17 percent). All totaled, there are an estimated 650,000 installed solar energy systems in the United States, including systems on more than half a million homes.
The residential sector grew an estimated 55 percent in 2014 – the largest among the market segments in terms of annual percentage growth. Last year’s rapid growth in residential solar brings cumulative installed capacity to 3.5 GW, which is more than five times the amount of residential solar that existed in 2010. In fact, when all of the 2014 numbers are in, five states – California, Arizona, Hawaii, New Jersey and New York – are each projected to have installed more residential solar than the entire country did in 2006.
The residential market has now grown by at least 50 percent in each of the past three years, largely due to continued decreases in the price of a solar installation. Through the midway point of 2014, the price to install residential solar had fallen to $3.92/watt – more than 41 percent lower than 2010 and 6 percent lower than a year ago. When combined with increased market competition and new financing options, solar has never been more cost-effective for the residential consumer.
U.S. businesses are also investing heavily in solar. According to SEIA’s annual Solar Means Business Report, which identifies major commercial solar projects and ranks top corporate solar users, Walmart remained America’s commercial solar leader for the third year in a row with 105 megawatts (MW) installed at 255 locations.
Other Blue Chip companies with large solar portfolios include Costco, Kohl’s, Apple, IKEA, Macy’s, Johnson & Johnson, McGraw Hill, Staples, Campbell’s Soup, U.S. Foods, Bed Bath & Beyond, Kaiser Permanente, Volkswagen, Walgreens, Target, Safeway, FedEx, Intel, L’Oreal, General Motors, Toys “R” Us, Verizon, Toyota and AT&T.
Combined, these companies have deployed 569 MW of solar capacity – a 28 percent increase over a year ago.
Today, there’s also 15 GW of utility-scale, clean energy solar projects under contract in the United States – utilizing both PV and CSP technologies – which will put thousands of electricians, steelworkers and laborers to work, spurring the economy while helping to reduce carbon emissions.
Additionally, more than 15 major solar power plants (100 MW and above) have already come online, including Ivanpah (392 MW), Topaz (300 MW), Agua Caliente (290 MW), Solana (280 MW) and Desert Sunlight (278 MW). Solana also features six hours of thermal energy storage, enabling it to deliver electricity even after the sun goes down.
What’s spurring this rapid growth? For one thing, solar energy is now more affordable than ever. According to SEIA/GTM Research, national blended average system prices have dropped 53 percent since 2010.
Today, the solar industry employs 173,000 Americans and pumps more than $15 billion a year into the U.S. economy. This remarkable growth is due, in large part, to smart and effective public policies, such as the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), Net Energy Metering (NEM) and Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). By any measurement, these policies are paying huge dividends for both the economy and our environment.
Rhone Resch is the President and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association