What were the top solar power stories of 2012? Here’s my list — chime in below if you think differently or have anything to add.
10. Giant US CSP power plants move along as planned, ready for completion in 2013.
While we didn’t see any big CSP power plants go online in 2012, a lot of work was going on behind the scenes, setting the stage for a boom in such utility-scale solar power plants in 2013. As noted less than a month ago:
- The BrightSource Energy Ivanpah project in California is progressing on schedule, with the project (392 MW) coming online in stages during 2013.
- Abengoa’s Solana 280 MW Generating Station in Arizona is over 75 percent complete and expected to be online in summer 2013.
- SolarReserve continues power purchase agreement (PPA) discussions with Tri-State and Xcel for its 200 MW Saguache project in Colorado.
- The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) unanimously approved an amended PPA for BrightSource’s 200 MW Sonoran West Project.
9. Research, research, research.
There are several stories each month on interesting and potentially breakthrough solar advancements. As just a sampling, here are some top recent stories (noted in Renewable Energy Big Pic Part II)::
- Solar-Cell Fabrics May Soon Be A Reality
- Nano-Flowers Could Help Create Next-Gen Energy Storage & Solar Cells
- Thin Film Solar Cell Degradation Prevented with New Method
- Artificial Butterfly Wing Material To Improve Solar Panels
- Rainbows From Nanotechnology To Improve Solar Cells
- Biohybrid Solar Cell Breakthrough: Spinach Protein Combined with Silicon in New Way that Greatly Boosts Performance
- New High-Efficiency Quantum Dot Solar Cells Developed
- Bandgap Engineering Aims To Double Solar Cell Power Generation Using Nanowires
- Color Vision At The Nanoscale, New Tool Developed To See In Color At The Nanoscale And Improve Solar-Energy Technology
- Organic Solar Cell Efficiency Tripled Thanks To Nanostructure Sandwich
- Ultra-Efficient Side-Illuminated Solar Cell Architecture Created By Researchers
- New Solar Module Efficiency Record Set, 33.5% Efficiency
- Black Silicon Solar Cell Efficiency Doubled
- Black Silicon Solar Cell Efficiency Raised to 18.2% by NREL Scientists
- Solar Cells for Windows Take Another Step Forward
- Solar Power Generation from the Windows — See-Through Solar Cells from Sharp
- Power-Generating Windows Offer New Horizons for Office Energy Efficiency
- One Step Closer to Invisible Solar Cells in Our Windows
8. Solar trade war grows.
While 2011 saw the start of the US–China “solar trade war,” 2012 saw the bulk of the activity (so far). Beyond US-initiated actions against Chinese solar companies, China retaliated with challenges to US solar policies, European companies initiated action against Chinese solar companies, India launched . Here are some of the most notable posts of the year in this arena:
- EU Launches WTO Investigation into Chinese Silicon PV Dumping Allegations
- Solar PV Trade Disputes Escalate as German Group Files Dumping Charges against China
- Solar Panel Trade Case in EU May Lead to Trade War
- US International Trade Commission Votes Unanimously In Favor Of Anti-Subsidy Duties On Chinese Silicon PV Imports
- Suntech & Trina Solar Statements on DOC Preliminary Solar Trade Ruling
- China Solar Inc. Trade Battles Intensify; State Bank to Boost Financial Support for Largest Players
- China Solar Trade War Analysis & Fact Sheet
- CASE Responds to U.S.–China Solar Trade Dispute Finding & Story (Plus My Own Thoughts)
- SolarWorld US-China Solar Trade Case Timeline & Top Quotes
- On the China-Solar Trade Dispute (& Solar Trade Dispute: Jigar Shah Response)
India vs US & China
- India Initiates Anti-Dumping Investigation Against China, The US, & Others
- China’s ReneSola To Sell Locally Manufactured Solar PV Modules In India, Aims To Dodge Possible Anti-Dumping Duties
7. Obama wins election, guaranteeing another 4 years of good solar power support from the most powerful person in the country (and, some say, in the world).
Obama’s win was a clear plus for US solar power among other things. As noted in November, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that he championed, broad and varied support was provided to solar energy (and all sorts of other cleantech). Furthermore, Obama has ordered the largest energy consumer in the nation, the US government, to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 28% by 2020; he has proposed eliminating fossil fuel subsidies (something that would help solar); he has fast-tracked the cleantech patent application process; he has overseen the quadrupling of clean energy on public land; he has created solar energy development zones on public lands in order to greatly boost solar power while also doing so in an environmentally sensitive way; and he has done much more to support this nascent industry.
Beyond the Obama success, clean energy champions across the US overwhelmingly won their races. While clean energy wasn’t necessarily the top factor in all of those races, it certainly was the top factor for some voters in each of them. And some of these candidates (such as Chris Murphy, Sherrod Brown, and Elizabeth Warren) are clear clean energy leaders who were running in tight races. Surely, being supportive of clean energy, which the vast majority of Americans support, helped them in their races.
6. Largest single-unit solar power plant in world is completed in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
At the end of November, Masdar corporation announced that it was about to finish the largest solar power plant in the world (or, to be more accurate, the largest single-unit solar power plant in the world — there are some “solar power plants” that consist of multiple solar projects that are larger). Shams 1 in Abu Dhabi “a generation capacity of over 100 MW of power, and was built with the stated purpose of providing 20,000 homes in the region with electricity,” as Nathan reported at the time. “The project will be followed shortly thereafter by Shams 2 & 3, which are planned to generate similar levels of electricity.”
5. Solar panel and solar power prices continue to drop.
As reported on December 11, solar panel prices have continued to fall at a good clip over the last year.
- “Average residential system prices dropped quarter-over-quarter from $5.45 per watt to $5.21 per watt nationally while average non-residential prices declined 15 cents per watt, falling to $4.18.”
- “Average utility system prices, which are currently at $2.40 per watt, continue to see the greatest reduction in prices of the three market segments covered, falling by 30 percent since third quarter last year.”
- And from a commenter below: “solar module prices have dropped to an average of $0.65/watt (silicon) and $0.61/watt (thin film)…. Lowest prices are $0.54 and $0.52 per watt.”
Some solar companies (and certainly customers) have benefited from the falling price of solar, while others have been squeezed out of the business as a result. Overall, the solar industry needs these price drops, but that doesn’t mean this process doesn’t hurt some companies and, thus, people.
The quotes above are for the US, but similar trends have been seen around the world.
4. US growth continues to be strong, best year ever.
As a result of falling prices, innovative financing models, governmental policies, and clear individual and corporate interest in clean energy, solar power growth continued strong in 2012. In fact, 2012 is sure to be the biggest year of solar growth in the US.
As indicated in the charts above, 684 MW of solar PV were installed in the US in the 3rd quarter, up 44% from the 3rd quarter of 2011. In fact, 2012 3rd quarter installations were the third best ever, only behind the 2012 2nd quarter and the 2011 4th quarter (note that the 4th quarter tends to be the best quarter each year). And the 4th quarter installation total is projected to be huge. Cumulative 2012 installations at the end of Q3 hit 1,992 MW, more than 2011’s annual total of 1,885 MW.
3. Japan implements generous feed-in tariff, sparks huge solar power growth.
Japan, an early leader in the solar industry, sparked a solar installation surge for the record books this year. The country enacted a higher-than-expected government solar energy feed-in tariff of 42 yen ($0.525) per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in July. It installed 725 MW of non-residential solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and 306 MW of residential solar PV systems in just in July and August.
And remember that the US has almost 2.5 times more citizens than Japan.
2. Australia — hidden decentralized solar giant — sees strong solar growth and better than grid parity solar prices.
Australia doesn’t get nearly the attention that Germany, the US, and China get when it comes to solar energy, but the land down under has developed one of the most attractive solar markets in the world.
While residential solar subsidies were cut in Queensland and Victoria in the middle of the year (resulting in boom–bust period), the falling cost of solar has kept the market alive and strong… in some respects, stronger than ever. The price of solar hit an all-time low in November, the same month that Australia reportedly passed 2,000 MW of installed solar PV capacity.
In October, Giles noted that “Australia now sports a rooftop array on one out of every 10 households.” That figure is 1/5 in South Australia.
Solar is so cheap in Australia that it makes sense for many homeowners and businesses to install solar without subsidies, and even home energy storage + solar may soon be viable, something that certainly threatens Australia’s big utilities (despite the fact that it offers them some financial benefits, too). Leading solar panel company Yingli has stated that Australia could be the first solar PV mass market.
Meanwhile, Australia’s new carbon tax doesn’t hurt, either. As Josh reported in October, “the intensity of the country’s electricity generation emissions has fallen since the introduction of the carbon price in July.” Here’s a chart on that note:
Australia passed 2000 MW of installed rooftop solar power in November 2012. With a population of just 22 million (compared to 312 million in the US), that makes US total solar PV capacity of 5,900 MW look quite weak.
With solar and wind doing so well in Oz, the country is bullish that renewables can supply 40% of its energy demand by 2035 and 85% by 2050.
1. Germany’s wicked growth and new records.
While Australia did beat Germany in rooftop solar installations in 2011, Germany still reigns supreme in most solar categories. For example, even at the end of 2011, Germany was #1 in total solar power capacity (by far) and solar power capacity per capita. I say “even” because the spread is likely to increase once 2012 data come in. Germany installed a staggering amount of solar power this year, breaking record after record.
Meanwhile, Germany’s government, which currently leans conservative, has been working with big utilities (who are losing considerable market share to households) and fossil fuel interests to challenge the evolution of the country’s clean energy success story.
Here are just a handful of the tremendous German solar power stories of the year:
German Solar Capacity & Electricity Production
- Chart: German PV Capacity = 50% Of Peak Summer Demand; US PV Capacity = 0.5% Of Peak Summer Demand
- Over 600 MW Of New Solar Installed In Germany In October (YTD = Almost 7,000 MW)
- 1,000 MW Of New Solar Power Installed In Germany In September, 6,000 MW Installed In 2012 Already
- German Solar Power Capacity Hits All-Time High… Again (More Solar than Rest of Europe)
- 70% of New EU Power from Renewable Energy in 2011 (47% Solar, 21% Wind)
- Solar on Verge of Overtaking Wind in Germany
- Infographic — A Summer Day in Germany
- Original Video: Renewable Energy in Germany 2012
- Installation of 500,000 German PV Solar Systems (Video)
- Awesome Graphs — Today’s Solar & Wind Power Relevance in Germany
- In-Depth: Germany’s 22 GW Solar Energy Record
- How Renewable Electricity Generation in Germany Has Changed (Chart & Statistics)
- April 1st in Germany — Happy Birthday, Renewable Energy Sources Act!
- Germany: 80 Times More Peak Solar Power than U.S. Compared to Electricity Demand
- Germany Installed a Record 7.5 GW of Solar Power in 2011
German Solar Prices
- Germany Solar Price Graphs
- German Baseload Power Cheaper than French 12 Months Running
- Renewable Energy Is Increasingly The “Least-Cost” Option For Grid Expansion
- Are Subsidies Holding Back U.S. Solar Deployment? (CleanTechnica Exclusive from Jigar Shah)
- Why We Pay Double for Solar in America (But Won’t Forever)
- Solar Much Cheaper in Germany than US for 1 Clear Reason — Soft Costs
- $2.24/Watt vs $4.44/Watt: Solar in Germany vs Solar in the US
- German Policy Could Make Solar in America “Wunderbar”
- How German Solar Has Made All German Electricity Cheaper
- Solar PV Reducing Price of Electricity in Germany
- Germany Raises Renewables Contribution Charge
- German Study: Not Much Power Storage or Coal Power Needed for 40% Renewable Power Supply
- Clean-Energy-Loving Germany Increasingly Exporting Electricity to Nuclear-Heavy France
- German Solar: Mission Too Well Accomplished, from Perspective of Fossil/Nuclear Lobby
- The Energiewende Cost Index
- Who’s Really Paying for Energiewende (and Increasing Natural Gas & Coal Prices)?
- Closer Look at German Solar Power Revolution
- Solar Power Revolution (Video)
- Power Play — German Energy Revolution (Video)
- 12 Years Later — Solar Energy in Germany (Video)
Prices Down, Prices Up — Huh?
- Graph: German Wholesale Electricity Prices Down, Retail Prices Up
- German Electricity Prices Rise as Utilities Increase Their Profit Margin from 1.1% to 8.2%
- German Power Providers Raise Prices 12%… Despite Lower Prices On Power Exchange
- Bavarian Village Rakes in $5.7 Million/Year by Selling Green Energy
- Small-Town Solar Revolution Has Created Jobs Galore & Driven Down Price of Power in Germany
- Who Has the Most Cost-Effective Solar CLEAN (Feed-in Tariff) Program?
- Germany Moving Away from Solar Parks to Rooftop Schemes
- Germans Trialling House that Produces Enough Spare Energy to Power a Car
- Renewable Energy Investment Attractiveness: China Continues at #1, US Suffers from Policy Slump, Germany Climbs to #2
What do you think — correct order? Did I miss any big stories? Have a few cents to add?
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I'm the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular clean energy website in the world, and Planetsave, a leading green and science news site. I've been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and I've been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, bicycling, and wind energy for the past few years. You can also find my work on Scientific American, Reuters, Think Progress, GE's ecomagination site, several sites in the Important Media network, & many other places. To connect on some of your favorite social networks, go to zacharyshahan.com or click on some of the links below.