A solar energy revolution is dawning in America, led by twelve states whose progressive policies dominate the US solar industry and illuminate the path forward to a nationwide clean energy economy.
This “Dazzling Dozen” represent 85% of America’s total solar energy capacity despite being home to just 28% of the total US population and 21% of all US electricity consumption, according to Environment America’s “Lighting the Way: What We Can Learn From America’s Top 12 Solar States” report.
These 12 states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Vermont – have little in common demographically or politically, but have all used smart policies that if emulated by other states, could help America get 10% of its electricity from solar energy by 2030.
US Solar Energy Economy Growing With Installation Surge
The sun is definitely rising on the US solar industry, according to the report. America had 7,500 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity at the end of 2012, three times more than in 2010, and more than ten times 2007.
In fact, the US installed 1,300MW of solar capacity in just the fourth quarter of 2012, more than it had installed in its entire history up to 2010. America’s solar surge doesn’t seem to be slowing down either, with solar energy representing nearly half of all the new electric generation capacity installed across the country in the first half of 2013, becoming just the fourth country to pass the 10,000MW installed capacity mark.
A green jobs boom has accompanied the surge in new installations, and every one of the top ten states in solar jobs is a member of the Dazzling Dozen. More than 119,000 Americans now work in the solar energy industry, up 13% from the previous year. Over half of these workers are solar system installers, and employment in installation grew 17.5% in 2012 alone. While solar manufacturing jobs saw a significant lull on competition from cheap foreign imports in 2012, analysts predict employment will rebound in 2013.
Expanded solar energy also creates benefits beyond just economic growth. Solar PV produces 96% less pollution than coal-fired power and 91% less pollution than natural gas. Solar also improves grid reliability by reducing the need for long-distance transmission, placing local generation near demand, and generating the most power when demand is highest (the afternoon).
What’s The Secret To Solar Success?
So enough about the benefits of solar energy, and more about how these states have found success. Environment America outlines multiple approaches that have worked for the Dazzling Dozen, but highlight four especially important policies:
- Net metering: 11 of the 12 states have strong net metering policies in place where consumers are paid the full retail electricity rate for any excess power they supply back to the grid. Net metering shortens the payback time and increases return on investment for small-scale solar systems.
- Renewable energy standards: 11 of the 12 states have mandatory minimum requirements for the percentage of a utility’s power that must come from renewable sources, and 9 have specific solar carve-outs that set specific targets for solar power within the RES.
- Interconnection: 10 of the 12 states have strong interconnection policies that cut through red tape for review and approval to help expedite the successful connection of solar projects to the grid.
- Creative financing options: most of the states have different financing mechanisms in place to help pay for solar systems including solar leasing, on-bill financing, virtual net metering, third-party power purchase agreements, and property-assessed clean energy (PACE) financing.
Additional Policies For Governments To Adopt
Beyond the four best practices, “Lighting the Way” recommends other policies for all levels of government to adopt in order to achieve America’s full solar energy potential:
- All levels of government should lead by example and cut their energy costs by installing solar PV on government buildings.
- The federal government should continue to fund tax credits, support research and development to develop new technologies and smooth renewables-to-grid integration, and expedite solar development on public lands.
- State governments should encourage utilities to invest in solar through their role as utility regulators, implement consumer-friendly rate structures, maintain or expand RES targets, and support investments in smart grid modernization.
- Local governments should support solar rights laws that allow residents to install solar on their properties, implement PACE programs, provide feed-in tariffs, and adopt solar-friendly zoning rules.
Toward A 100% Solar-Powered America?
While the Dazzling Dozen shine a light on solar energy’s success in America, we’ve still got a long way to go. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates rooftop solar PV could generate more than 20% of all US electricity demand, and maximizing utility-scale solar projects in rural areas could generate 70 times the entire amount of power used in America annually.
That’s why “Lighting the Way” matters – every one of our 50 states has the potential to generate more electricity from solar power than it uses in an average year. “The sky’s the limit on solar energy,” said Rob Sargent of Environment America. “The progress of these states should give us the confidence that we can do much more.”
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