The Energy Information Administration (EIA), an agency of the federal government that collects, analyzes, and reports information about the energy sector to help create effective energy policy and to educate the public, has released a report about solar electricity generation in the United States. The news is impressive: Capacity for generation of electric power from solar has risen dramatically over the past four years, from 2,326 megawatts in 2010 to 12,057 MW in 2014, going from .22% of the power generation capacity of the United States to almost 1.13%, an amazing 418% growth rate.
If one percent or so sounds miniscule, consider that it means more than one in 100 people in the country can get their power from a clean, renewable source. That’s over 3.2 million people, at present, and if solar were to maintain its meteoric growth rate of over 100% per year, that capacity would more than double every year, providing two-thirds of the country’s capacity in six short years. While it’s unlikely that capacity will burgeon that dramatically, prospects for continued robust growth look good, owing mainly to the sharp decrease in prices for solar power generation systems in recent years, coupled with increased government incentives.
The EIA report analyzes data from three different sources of solar power generation: Residential and commercial photo-voltaic (PV) systems that are connected to the grid via net metering; “utility-level” (defined as producing more than one megawatt) PV systems; and utility-level solar thermal systems. Net metered systems have increased annually by over 1,000 MW since 2010, and there are many incentives at the state level to encourage further growth. Net metering, which allows individual customers to sell the excess energy produced by their systems back to the power companies, is about equally divided between residential and commercial applications (there are also some self-sufficient systems that are “off the grid”–not net metered–but these were not counted among the data).
In the two utility-level categories, solar PV applications at the utility level finally surpassed the net metered PV capacity in 2013, currently accounting for more than 5,500 MW. Not surprisingly, sunny California and Arizona are the leading states in this sector, but somewhat-sunny North Carolina comes in third, due to statewide incentives. Solar in Texas is still struggling to take hold due largely to a lack of incentives and low electricity rates from traditional sources of power such as natural gas. Solar thermal systems, which employ the sun’s heat where PV systems use its light, currently lag behind PV, with a generating capacity of about 1,050 MW, but the forecast for growth in this sector is also strong. Because of its storage capacity, solar thermal can supplement PV on cloudy days or at night. Several new solar thermal plants were brought online recently, more than doubling the prior capacity, and plans are in the works for further development, both in solar thermal and PV, as well. It is anticipated that net-metered solar will expand accordingly, making solar a robust sector for growth.