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.
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.”