Clean Power

Published on April 24th, 2014 | by Silvio Marcacci


US Solar Energy Capacity Grew An Astounding 418% From 2010-2014

April 24th, 2014 by  

Solar energy’s rapid growth in America is evident – even casual observers will note the proliferation of solar photovoltaics (PV) across the country. But sheer size is usually illustrated best by statistics, and in this case, the stat is 418%

That’s the percentage installed solar energy capacity grew in the U.S. from 2010-2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s April 2014 Electricity Monthly Update.

It’s true solar is still a small part of America’s energy mix – even with this growth, solar energy still only makes up just over 1% of total national generation capacity. But quadrupling capacity in just four years is an indisputable testament to the potential for solar to decarbonize our economy and decentralize our power system.

US solar capacity 2010 to 2014

US solar capacity 2010-2014 chart via US Energy Information Administration

Nearly 10,000MW New Capacity In Just Four Years

In 2010, America’s total solar capacity was just 2,326 megawatts (MW), good for .22% of the country’s total electricity generation capacity. But the plummeting price of solar modules and increasing efficiency of installation has sent solar skyrocketing.

By February 2014, 12,057MW of solar electricity generation had been installed across the country, a growth rate of 418% and 9,731MW in sheer gain. Solar’s share of total U.S. generation capacity now stands at 1.13% – and EIA estimates continued growth across the industry.

Keep in mind capacity doesn’t always equal actual generation output – even the biggest fossil fuel power plants go offline due to maintenance or malfunction, and while intermittency concerns are being addressed through innovation, myriad factors mean solar panels won’t always be generating electricity.

This gap between capacity and generation is best illustrated in EIA’s forecast for solar to represent just .5% of total generation by 2015 – a controversial target that some analysts say should actually be between .9% and 1.37% for that time period.

Utility-Scale Vs Net Metered Solar Growth

Parsing the data a bit further also reveals interesting growth trends within distinct solar industry market segments, and could mean a balancing out of the fight over net metering.

EIA notes net-metered applications have increased every year since 2010 at an annual rate of around 1,100MW and now total 5,251MW total installed capacity. California remains the clear leader with 38% of total net-metered capacity, but irradiance isn’t the only driver – New Jersey and Massachusetts combine for an additional 21% of total capacity.

But while net metering gets the most attention in statehouses, utility-scale solar PV has overtaken net metered solar, perhaps for good. These systems, with an installed capacity of 1MW or greater, have grown fast and now total 5,564MW total installed capacity.

As with small-scale solar, California leads the way with 49% of installed capacity, followed by Arizona with 17% and North Carolina with 6% The Tarheel State’s utility-scale solar strength stands out in comparison to its minuscule .2% net-metered capacity share – indicative of diverse state solar policies.

“The biggest takeaways I see are that utility scale PV capacity is rapidly increasing and overtook the net metered segment according to our data,” said Glenn McGrath, EIA Team Lead for Electric Power Systems and Reliability, via email. “Different state policies are key drivers in the growth of the two segments.”

EIA also notes the rise of solar thermal projects, namely concentrated solar power. This sector traditionally represented just 400MW total capacity, but expanded significantly when three large facilities representing 650MW of new capacity went online in 2013. Ivanpah is the most famous example, but Solano is a “particularly distinctive application” due to its storage capabilities.

Will Past Be Prologue For Solar Energy?

If the previous four years are any indicator, past may be prologue for solar energy in the U.S. EIA notes 6,459MW of utility-scale solar and 1,841MW of thermal solar are proposed across the country (a net-metered projection was not included), meaning solar energy could take another exponential jump.

EIA’s monthly update was careful not to set explicit expectations for the future of solar energy, but notes the industry’s quick move from “relatively small contributor” into “one of comparative significance.” And as the industry continues growing, our understanding of solar energy’s potential may expand.

“This is an area that EIA is putting a lot of effort in accurately representing,” said McGrath. (It) “is certainly going to be a very interesting area over the next couple of years.”

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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

  • Daniel M

    That would still be California–both northern and southern California. Both regions of the state have been installing PV since the late 1980s. Most new housing developments also already install them on newly built homes. I expect Southern California to grow faster then Northern California, if only because the majority of the state’s population is in SoCal, and most home builders are also based in SoCal.

    In general you want to look in areas where there is an above average income levels (like California, perhaps the Northwest, large urban centers in the South and midwest), and where the sun shines a lot (California, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Utah, North Carolina, Georgia, etc.).

  • docscience

    The cost of installed residential solar, without subsidies taken from others, runs 23 cents/kw-hr for the INTEREST and PRINCIPLE for the capital investment, based on the current cost of thirty year bonds for the Chinese to buy from the US Treasury.

    That’s twice the national average RETAIL cost of electricity and does not include the cost for providing power for nights and short, dark days.

    Without the green thumb on the scales, both to artificially lower the price of solar and/or to artificially raise the price of conventional electricity, only someone living in Hawaii or Puerto Rico would buy solar with their own money.

    Just for a little rain on the party.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Avoid the allcaps shouting or your parade will get washed away.

      Now, where (geographically) does installed residential solar cost 23c/kWh?

      If we take the average price for residential solar in the US for Q3, 2014 ($4.59/watt – no subsidies) and the CF for the middle of the country (18.75%) the cost of electricity is 18.7c/kWh.

      If we look at the low range, $2.85/watt and 23% CF the non-subsidized cost of electricity drops to 9.3c/kWh.

      I see no bases for your claim unless you are cherry-picking an example of higher than average installation rates.

      • jeffhre

        Interesting. Aren’t mid day, peak, marginal, electricity costs at about $.23? Does that line up with the peak hours of solar output, with zero, no fuel required, marginal costs? Is that lowering the cost of electricity during many of the peak, most expensive hours? Just wondering.

        • Bob_Wallace

          I was asking fake doc dump and run where installed solar was running 23c/kWh.

          • jeffhre

            Yep, but I am still wondering? How do prices and benefits of installed solar fit into his assumptions. Seems like even with his negative assumptions, and the paranoid fear of fingers being on the scale, as though fossil fuels have gotten no subsidies…

            As an example one could still get a reasonable rate of return using his numbers, with grid tied systems, on a time of use plan, which eliminates peak hour pricing schemas.

            In other words, despite his worst case fears and using his own made up pricing, wouldn’t he still pay less, and even generate a reasonable return on invested capital, with solar in many parts of the US? Cognitive dissonance is real bear, when it slays a guys own internal logic – makes him mumble inanities in a public forum.

    • Chris

      I’m not sure what math you’re using but I recently installed 10kW for ~$18k… $13k after the FTC. While the inverter will probably last 20 years the warranty is only 10 so we’ll assume replacing it once; it costs ~$3k. So over 20 years the cost is $21k and the system will generate ~400MWh. $21k/400MWh = $0.053/kWh. Not sure where you live but here in Texas we pay ~$0.12/kWh.

      • jeffhre

        Looking like some here are reporting about 30 years for panels that produce at 80% and I have seen as little as 10 years for inverters. That inverter data was from a few years ago. Could they be longer lived now?

        • Bob_Wallace

          I’ve checked with a couple of companies that sell inverters and they report that they aren’t seeing early failures. Their working assumption is more than 20 years lifespan.

          Have not see any actual data. I think people are looking at the now-standard 10 year warranty.

          You buy a new car and get a 3 year, 30,000 mile warranty. Expect your bumper to fall off at 31k?

          • Bob_Wallace

            On panel life –

            “The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) performed a meta-analysis of studies that examined the long term degradation rates of various PV panels. They found that the 1% per year rule was somewhat pessimistic for panels made prior to the year 2000, and today’s panels, with better technology and improved manufacturing techniques, have even more stamina than their predecessors. For monocrystalline silicon, the most commonly used panel for commercial and residential PV, the degradation rate is less than 0.5% for panels made before 2000, and less than 0.4% for panels made after 2000. That means that a panel manufactured today should produce 92% of its original power after 20 years, quite a bit higher than the 80% estimated by the 1% rule.

            Crystalline silicon modules located in extreme climates showed high degradation rates. For very cold climates, panels subjected to heavy wind and snow loads suffered the most. On the other hand, panels in similar climates that were installed in a facade, eliminating the snow load, had very low rates of degradation. At the other extreme, panels in desert climates exhibited large decreases in production over time – close to 1% per year – mainly due to high levels of UV exposure. Panels in more moderate climates such as the northern United States had degradation rates as low as 0.2% per year. Those panels could retain 96% of their production capabilities after 20 years.”


            And here’s data on some panels in service for 35 years in Germany. 0.1% loss per year.

          • jeffhre

            Thanks I suspected that panel performance was true but did not have data available. For inverter longevity, there is enough past anecdotal 10 year “I had to replace mine” reports that I am still skeptical and will budget for 10 to 15 to year replacement, even if it may no longer be true.

            Of course urban legend has it that you will replace a motor or transmission the first year off of warranty. Buying used Hondas I found that to be an unfounded fear. Bought a used Jag once, found it to be the absolute, unvarnished truth!

          • Bob_Wallace

            I live in an area with a lot of people who are off the grid. I’ve never heard of anyone who had to replace their inverter.

            Anecdotal data, as you know, can be very misleading. Stuck pigs squeal. But going in with the idea that you might have to replace your inverter in the 10-30 year window is reasonable. If you don’t then you’ve got some more retirement money. ;o)

      • kswizzle

        Chris… Nice job showing the deniers! They failed HS match!

  • Matt

    What is not so great here in the USA is the “net metering” install, which I think I read as everything except solar thermal and PV “plants” 1MW and bigger. So I guess those map to “Distributed sites”, homes, biz, corporations. Notice that the install rate is almost constant. We need the rate of on installs to be increasing at a faster rate.

  • mds

    “This gap between capacity and generation is best illustrated in EIA’s forecast for solar to represent just .5% of total generation by 2015 – a controversial target that some analysts say should actually be between .9% and 1.37% for that time period.”

    No, EIA predictions cannot be used to illustrate that gap. EIA predictions have been ridiculously, outrageously unrealistically, low for solar …as James Wimberley suggests. Their predictions have been showing absolutely no resemblance to reality.

    ” “This is an area that EIA is putting a lot of effort in accurately representing,” said McGrath. (It) “is certainly going to be a very interesting area over the next couple of years.” ”
    Evidence to date is that EIA predictions are lame. They have been far lower than other predictions from NPD Solarbuzz, GTM, IHS, Deutsche Bank, iSuppli, and others. …AND all of these have been consistently under predicting solar growth.
    Great news here, but please don’t give any credence to EIA’s solar growth predictions. They deserve none. They’ve earned none.

  • Doug Cutler

    Hockey stick.

    • mds

      Yes, when graphed over a longer period. Use a hockey stick to beat a hockey stick!

      • Doug Cutler

        Yes, I’m Canadian so I know all about hockey sticks and their use.

        Right now we’re just at the inner curve of the blade opposite the heel. The full length of the blade hasn’t shown itself yet but soon will. The fossil fuel ref is trying to call a high sticking penalty but will be shouted down by the fans.

        • mds


  • JamesWimberley

    Ah, but look at the unchanging EIA projections. It’s all a bubble fueled by tax incentives and Chinese subsidies! Solar will go flat from tomorrow on …

    • Will E

      hehe LOL
      I make 3000 euros a year on roof solar a year,
      add TESLA, BMWi3 and I make again 3000 euros a year
      for not buying fuel.
      I go to Ibiza to spend my solar dollars.

      • you have a Model S & i3? man, would love to publish a review of those two from you if you want to write one up. 😀

    • Bob_Wallace

      Let’s show people what the EIA predicts for solar over the next several years.

      Massive bankruptcies and job loss as US solar companies go out of business. No new solar on US grids for a couple of decades.

      Remove the 30% subsidy. Price reverts to about what it was 2-3 years ago. Was there no solar installation then?

      By the time the subsidy drops to 10% at the end of 2016 is it not likely that the cost of solar will have dropped significantly? Utility scale solar fell 15% 2012 to 2013. Residential solar fell 9.7%.

      Three years of 6.7% price drop = a 20% federal subsidy decrease.

      Dumb, dumber, and dumbest.

      • sault

        The EIA always lets the oil, coal and gas companies think they have 20 years before they need to start worrying about renewable energy and they keep walking back the “knee” in clean energy’s growth curve every year. Maybe it lulls them into a false sense of security, but given all the lies the fossil industry is spreading about clean energy right now, I don’t think they’re taking the bait any longer.
        I just don’t know how they can have any credibility after predicting that nearly zero solar PV will be installed between 2016 and 2026.

      • kswizzle

        So if we take subsidies away from Solar, why not reciprocate and remove oil subsidies…

        • Bob_Wallace

          If you can figure out how to get Congress to do that you’ll be a hero.

    • Pieter Siegers

      Why are you always so negative James?

      • Bob_Wallace

        Bad read, Pieter. That’s snark.

        • Pieter Siegers

          Yeah, right.

    • kswizzle

      James… Let take subsidies from Oil also… You typical angry Republican!

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