Globally, we have surpassed the 100 GW threshold of installed solar power. As reported in Triple Pundit, India and Spain have both achieved grid parity and Italy is also competitive. Grid parity is the holy grail of renewable energy, it is the point at which generating electricity is equal in cost, or cheaper than conventional grid power.
The falling costs of solar panels are making solar energy competitive and this trend is expected to continue. The cost of Chinese solar panels is expected to drop to a new low of 42 cents per watt by 2015, which will make power generated from solar cheaper than both coal and most forms of natural gas within a decade.
Overview of U.S. Solar 2011 - 2012
Solar is an increasingly competitive source of energy. According to U.S. Solar Market Insight: Year-in-Review 2012 by GTM research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), in 2012, the U.S. solar market grew at the astounding rate of 76 percent. This makes solar the fastest growing energy source in the U.S. The U.S. installed 3,313 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaics (PV) in 2012, a record for the industry.
The market size of the U.S. solar industry grew 34 percent from $8.6 billion in 2011 to $11.5 billion in 2012. As of the end of 2012, there were 7,221 MW of PV and 546 MW of concentrating solar power (CSP) online in the U.S. Which is enough to power 1.2 million homes.
In 2012, California became the first state to install more than 1,000 MW in one year, with growth across all market segments. Arizona came in as the second largest market, led by large-scale utility installations, while New Jersey experienced growth in the state’s non-residential market.
The report found that there are now more than 300,000 PV systems operating across the U.S.? Twelve states installed over 50 MW of solar each in 2012, up from eight in 2011?.
“All of these data point to solar having turned the corner,” said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of SEIA. “Solar is an affordable option for homes and businesses today, and is well on its way to becoming a substantial part of America’s energy portfolio.”
U.S Solar 2013 and Beyond
SEIA and GTM Research expect the growth to continue into 2013 and beyond. The report forecasts 4,300 MW of new PV installations in 2013, up 29 percent over 2012, and 946 MW of concentrating solar power. Over the next four years, the residential and non-residential markets are expected to gain market share as system prices decline, the industry becomes even more efficient, and new financing channels arise.
Going forward, it would appear that solar will continue to grow at an even faster rate. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that solar installations will more than double to 230 GW by 2017. Deutsche Bank has forecasted that solar will be standing on its own feet, saying, “We see the sector transitioning from subsidized to sustainable markets in 2014.”
U.S. solar appears to be growing at ever faster rates. The performance of U.S. solar in the first half of 2013 exceeds the growth of solar in the first half of 2012 (1.8 GW compared to 1.3 GW). The utility-scale market was responsible for at least 45 percent of solar PV installations.
The report forecasts ongoing growth in the North American solar sector, “Cumulative solar PV installations are forecast to increase an additional 80 percent over the next 18 months, surpassing 17 GW by the end of 2014.”
While we have seen strong solar performances from the Southwest and Southeast regions, there are tremendous opportunities for growth in largely untapped areas of the Great Plains and Great Lakes regions.
According to the SEIA report. “Solar PV has been one of the fastest growing energy sources in the U.S. over the past six years, with a compound annual growth rate of over 50 percent since 2007,” Most of Solar's U.S. growth (83 percent) has occurred since 2010.
The declining price of solar since 2011 is driving this growth. “Average installed system prices in the US have declined from around $6 per watt two years ago to approximately $4.25 per watt for residential installations and $3 per watt for large utility-scale PV projects today,” the report states.
The Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative is aiming for $1 per installed watt.
NPD Solarbuzz reports that there are now almost 1,400 solar PV installations in excess of 500kW size which have been completed in 39 different states so far with many others under construction. This has accounted for approximately 5.4GW of new capacity in the US.
Although nearly 40 percent of the new capacity has been installed in California, on the other side of the continent, New York is also rapidly growing its solar energy infrastructure. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is investing in large-scale solar energy projects across the state as part of his NY-Sun initiative.
NPD Solarbuzz latest “North American PV Market Quarterly” reports indicate that due to state incentive programs, the U.S. has installed more than 1.8 GW of photovoltaics (PV) in the first half of 2013, which has pushed the U.S. beyond 10 GW of installed solar power. This is a momentous milestone for the U.S., as the nation now joins Germany, China and Italy, which are already producing more than 10 gigawatts of solar power.
Germany is the undisputed global leader in solar power. Thanks in large measure to the nation's feed-in tariffs (FiT), Germany now has five times as much solar power as the U.S.
Germany is a nation that proves the point that solar can supply a substantial percentage of national energy requirements. At various times, between one third and one half of all of Germany was powered by electricity generated by solar plants.
Germany keeps breaking its own solar records. In 2012, German solar power plants produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity (the equivalent of more than 20 nuclear power plants). Germany set yet another record in July climbing ahead of the earlier record of 23.4 GW it set set in June. At its peak on July 7, the output got up to 23.9 GW. This is about 40 percent of the country’s electricity demand.
Approximately 1.3–1.4 million solar power systems were involved in creating that massive electricity output. About 8.5 million Germans live in buildings where solar power systems are used to produce electricity or heat.
Germany is not the only country benefiting from harnessing the sun's rays, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic actually beat Germany on solar power per GDP.
No country is growing its solar energy infrastructure faster than China. According to a July 15 statement from the State Council, China will increase its installed solar capacity to 35 GW by 2015. The country plans to add 10 GW of solar-power capacity annually over the next three years.
China is already the world’s biggest maker of solar panels, but it is suffering from oversupply. The expansion of domestic solar installations is designed to increase demand and address some of the problem of oversupply.
To achieve its ambitious goal, China will help to provide credit support for profitable photovoltaic (PV) manufacturers, encourage overseas investment and offer tax breaks to solar companies that acquire others, merge or reorganize their operations. The government will also encourage partnerships between the makers of polysilicon (used to make solar panels) with chemical companies.
With this consorted national effort, China is expected to surpass Germany as the global solar leader in the very near future.
Large scale solar projects
There are a number of PV power plants that use the abundant renewable energy emanating from the sun. In 2012, the world’s largest solar thermal plant opened in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The new plant is almost double the size of what was previously the largest solar thermal facility (located in Denmark), and it will generate enough power to heat water for a university of 40,000 students. Here is a compilation of some of the larger solar PV plants around the world:
- The Huanghe Hydropower Golmud Solar Park in China which generates 317 MWs. It was completed in October 2011 and is located within a group of 570 MW of co-located plants.
- The Solarpark Seftenberg photovoltaic power plant is located close to the city of Senftenberg, Eastern Germany, which was earlier used as an open-pit mining area. This 78 MW plant, consisting of 62 central inverter stations and around 330,000 crystalline solar modules, is capable of generating 166 MW because it includes another plant sharing the common infrastructure having an overall capacity of 70 MW and one more power plant with a capacity of 18 MW. One of the most interesting aspects of this installation is the fact that it was built in only 3 months.
- Neuhardenberg Solar Park is located in Germany and was completed in September 2012. It has a production capacity of 145 MW. It is located within a group of 11 co-located plants in the Brandenburg-Briest Solarpark.
- oul-Rosières Solar Park in France was completed in July 2012 and has a production capacity of 115 MW. The solar park has about 1.4 million thin-film PV panels made by First Solar.
- The Sarnia Photovoltaic Power Plant located near Sarnia, Ontario in Canada was completed in September 2010. The 950 acres installation is covered by 1.3 million thin film solar panels and has an annual yield of about 120 MW.
- Perovo Solar Park Ukraine was completed 2011; it has 440,000 solar panels and has a generation capacity of 100 MW.
- The Finsterwalde Solar Park was completed in 2010 and has a total capacity of 80 MW. It is located in Finsterwalde, Germany.
- The Leiberose Photovoltaic Park operated by the Juwi Group and is located in Leiberose, Brandenburg, Germany, went fully on line in October 2009 and has a total capacity of 71.8 MW. The highly energy efficient solar park consists of 700,000 solar panels.
- The Montalto di Castro photovoltaic power station located in Viterbo, Italy is the largest photovoltaic power plant in Italy. The total capacity of this plant is 44 MW.
New large scale U.S. solar projects
- Copper Mountain Solar Facility has a production capacity of 150 MWs. Phase 1 was completed in December 2010 and phase 2 was completed in January 2013.
- California Valley Solar Ranch, it was completed in February 2013 and has a production capacity of 130 MW.
- Mesquite Solar project in Arizona will generate up to 700 MW when completed.
- Agua Caliente Solar Project in Arizona will generate 397 MW when completed.
- Antelope Valley Solar Ranch in California will generate 230 MW when completed.
U.S. solar jobs
There were more than 119,000 Americans employed by the solar industry in 2012. According to the Solar Foundation, between 2011 and 2012 the solar industry adding almost 14,000 U.S. jobs, this represents a 13.2 percent job growth rate. This is particularly impressive when you consider that the overall economy grew at a mere 2.3 percent in this timeframe.
It is clear that the U.S. solar industry is creating jobs in America and helping to grow the economy. “Today, solar is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States, providing good-paying jobs for more than 119,000 American workers,” said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of SEIA.
Innovative solar technologies
There are a number of new solar technologies that can make this industry even more competitive. One of these is Arizona based First Solar (FSLR), the thin-film solar leader, which has developed a new cadmium telluride solar module efficiency record that absolutely crushes the previous record (also held by FSLR).First Solar achieved an NREL-confirmed efficiency of 16.1 percent, which erases the previous record of 14.4 percent that the firm set last year. Researchers are engaged in solar innovation all around the world.
Scientists at Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, have set a new efficiency record for thin-film copper indium gallium (di)selenid (or CIGS) based solar cells on flexible polymer foils, reaching an efficiency of 20.4 percent. This is an increase from a previous record of 18.7 percent set by Empa in 2011.
Israeli startup Solaris Synergy has developed a water based technology to create a floating concentrated photovotaic (CPV) system instead of the traditional land-based solar system. CPV systems focus a large amount of sunlight onto a small area to generate electricity by converting solar radiation into direct current electricity. Solaris Synergy's floating CPV system features a modular design that supports a wide range of power outputs. The company claims that their solar-on-water solution dramatically lowers the cost of renewable energy production since the water surface is also used for cooling the solar panels. This cooling system keeps the silicon elements used as semiconductors at a low temperature and therfore increases their power generation efficiency and extends their lifespan.
Other firms innovating new technologies include California based companies Reel Solar and Bloo Solar, and Calyxo in Germany to name but a few.
Solar may not be a panacea for our fossil fuel dependant energy woes, but it is a vital part of clean power solutions that can help pull us back from the brink of runnaway climate change.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: World Bank, courtesy flickr