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Clean Power US solar industry growth

Published on February 2nd, 2015 | by Tina Casey


Nothing Can Stop The US Solar Industry Juggernaut Now

February 2nd, 2015 by  

The US solar industry has engineered a 1200% increase in utility-scale capacity since 2008, according to a new blog post from the Energy Department. When you factor in the explosive rate of growth in small-scale solar, it’s clear that the current hiccup in the price of oil is not going to stop solar energy from advancing in the US market.

The only question now is how quickly the US solar industry can meet the growth in demand, and for that we turn to a pair of newly announced SunShot programs designed to help the US solar industry churn out — and install — more product than ever before.

US solar industry growth

US solar industry growth (image enhanced, courtesy of US DOE).

A Plan To Make Solar Energy “Ubiquitous”

If you’re not familiar with the Obama Administration’s 2011 SunShot initiative, that would be a 10-year plan to bring the cost of solar energy down to parity with fossil fuels.

SunShot has provided critical support for the US solar industry despite some concerted efforts to nip it in the bud (cue the usual suspects). Solar is already competitive in some US markets, and thousands of new solar industry jobs have been added even as the US fossil fuel industry has put thousands of its own on the chopping block.

Part of SunShot is aimed at improving solar cell efficiency, but there’s a lot more to it than that. The program embraces a soup-to-nuts approach to reducing the cost of solar power, so it also takes aim at manufacturing and installation, too.

So far so good, but there’s still lots of work to be done before we get to the overarching goal of SunShot, which is to make solar not only competitive but ubiquitous.

$45 Million For US Solar Manufacturing

Of the two new solar programs announced on Friday, the lion’s share — $45 million — is going to help reduce manufacturing costs under a new “Technology to Market” funding opportunity.

This program will wrap the existing Incubator, Solar Manufacturing Technology, and Scaling Up Nascent PV at Home funding streams into one neat little package.

Here’s what we can expect from the three-in-one approach:

…In the interest of optimizing the application and selection process, these funding opportunities have been combined into a single FOA (funding opportunity announcement), with the goal of bringing disruptive innovation to the solar industry in the near term that will take root in the US.

By “disruptive innovation” the Energy Department means anything that breaks the mold in manufacturing hardware and software, from one end of the supply chain to the other.

For an idea of what that could encompass, take a look at SolarWorld (yes, this SolarWorld), which won a $4 million grant last fall under the Solar Manufacturing Technology program to develop a new process for growing high quality silicon wafers.

 $15 Million For Local Solar

We started off by mentioning the explosive growth of the US solar industry at the utility-scale, which the Energy Department marks at one megawatt or more.

The distributed solar market is also taking off like a rocket, and that’s the field addressed by the other new program, a collection of $15 million in grants for 15 “Solar Market Pathways” projects.

These projects are aimed specifically at reducing the “soft” costs of solar, including financing, permitting, installation, and grid connections. They’re expected to yield actionable case studies that can serve as best practices models for the US solar industry as a whole.

Though the outlay is relatively small, the ripple effect could be enormous. Get a load of the $860,000 award to the City University of New York (CUNY), for example. With another $314,000 chipped in by CUNY, this project creates an investor roadmap for resilient solar systems, including energy storage.

Here’s a partial list of the stakeholders CUNY has rounded up for the project (in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Meister Consulting Group) under the somewhat cumbersome name of The NYSolar Smart Distributed Generation (DG) Hub — Resilient Solar Project:

  • The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority
  • The New York Power Authority
  • The NYC Mayor’s Office
  • Consolidated Edison
  • National Grid
  • The Electric Power Research Institute
  • GE
  • SMA-America
  • General Electric, SMA
  • SolarCity (of course)
  • SunPower
  • First Solar
  • Princeton Power

That’s some lineup and that’s just one of the 15 projects. Among the others, we’re also especially interested in a $700,000 grant to the Solar Electric Power Association, which is working with a number of stakeholders to come up with a set of standardized design options based on research into solar consumer preferences.

The idea is to accelerate development of community solar by helping the solar industry to develop business models that align with the interests of the host community.

Add up the stakeholders across all 15 projects and you can see why the rantings of certain federal legislators might put a temporary crimp in the growth of the US solar industry, but nothing can stop the inevitable.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Jordarn Muller

    Thank you for sharing this. See a case study on competitive threat analysis for global tire manufacturer which has a lot of information on manufacturing industry in the website of The Business Research Company.

  • Burnerjack

    My area just suffered a 33% increase in electricity rates. National Grid offers tips to help “keep costs down” but somehow failed to mention going Solar. How could they overlook such a widespread practice?

  • klondike

    There’s a big difference between Megawatt and Gigawatt. I’m sure you meant Gigawatt.

  • spec9

    Yep, solar is on a rampage. It is pretty cheap and it works great. I’m a big fan of residential PV solar because you are competing with retail electricity rates and thus it is quite economical.

  • RobMF

    I’m surprised there isn’t an initiative to put solar on apartment and condo complexes — both existing and new build. Many of these structures could function as a self-integrated micro grid.

    • Marion Meads

      The Green Community Village of University of California – Davis has condominium complexes that are net zero energy. These are excellent models. They use passive ground source heating and cooling as well as solar panel arrays over various parking lots around the condo.

    • Michael G

      The problem with apts. is that every resident uses a different amt of electricity so the building’s solar panel’s kWh would have to be apportioned in some equitable way which puts the apt complex owner in the position of utility provider. This is illegal in many places. Obviously, this has to change but who benefits if you do? Not the utility, and probably not the apt. owner. Probably not the renters who typically stay no more than a few years. If no one can see an economic benefit it won’t happen.

      Condo dwellers have an association dominated by a few dedicated people who have to please every owner which is impossible since it is always easier to say no to something new.

      The best solution is that towns require all new buildings be build with solar panels. It will take 20 years (depreciation rate) at the earliest to replace most apts with new buildings.

  • Marion Meads

    $45M and $15M for R&D? How about make it at parity with subsidies spent on the fossil fuel industry? At parity with dino energy, we would have $499.94 Billion. Use this amount to underwrite all solar projects in the US. No need for credit checks. The only thing required would be proof that they can pay their utility bills. Instant approval after that. Make it a community effort for those living in Condos and have their solar PV installed nearby the outskirts of the city in unused lands. Everyone will surely go solar. One thing nice about this is that, the money would be paid back, most of it! Even if there are some that was not paid back, it becomes a source of renewable energy displacing the polluting sources. Unlike the subsidies for dino energy, those subsidies ends up being hoarded by the top 1% who wants total control over the 99%.

    • YES! Forget about carbon tax, forget about trying to pry the existing subsidies from the fossil fuel industries (basically prying the subsidies from the cold, dead, hands, because that’s about what it would take!) and instead — ramp up renewable energy subsidies to the same level as fossil or nuclear energy presently enjoy.

      More jobs would be the result, also, doing so ‘outs’ the fossil and nuclear energy (subsidy-wise) and let’s face it, if the subsidies were at parity, there would be no competition. Renewable energy would win hands down. Even without including externality costs.

      Cheers, JBS

      • Will E

        I love to see a parity to keystone 8 billion pipeline. not a few million here there.
        solar 8 billion, Wind 8 billion, keystone 8 billion.
        USA has a 4000 billion budget.
        must be easy to start cleantechnics

    • Will E

      agree totally completely
      install a billion or say 10 billion on solar at a price now 1 dollar a kwh you get 10 billion kwh a year. sell for 20 cents a kwh and you get
      every year 2 billion profit from the sun longtime.
      locally produced income.
      that is

  • JamesWimberley

    Nice photo of the original juggernauts, chariot floats (Ratha-Yatra) for a major Hindu festival in India at Puri. The story of devotees throwing themselves under the wheels is Victorian orientalising, but I suppose accidents do happen.

    • Ronald Brakels

      Good photo. Friends of mine saw a chap get killed by the “fighting shrines” in Japan. There an accident did happen.

    • spec9

      Thanks for the history lesson! 🙂

  • JamesWimberley

    SunShot will reach its objective, that’s for sure: the way sacrificing virgins brings the spring. It’s only a drop in the global solar R&D bucket. I suggest its real aim and value is in keeping a slice of the pie for US businesses. Fair enough.

    BTW, the definition of “utility solar” as over 1MW is dubious. At a low 150w per square metre, that’s 6,666 square metres, or a square 82 metres on a side. That is far less than many car park or factory roof setups. The UK ends FITs at 5MW, more realistic if you are using a capacity definition. A functional one is better: a utility solar plant is one with no significant self-consumption not required for its own operation.

    • Matt

      The USA does not do FITs so that from that point it does not matter.
      $45M – for making them cheaper (will of course spread round the world)
      $15M – These projects are aimed specifically at reducing the “soft” costs of solar, including financing, permitting, installation, and grid connections. This is pointed at local (less than 1MW). But improvements here will likely also help that large parking lot/roof of a corporation also. It is just that the focus is on DG soft cost where the US lags way behind.

    • Frank

      Hardware costs are already well within the range of grid parity, what we need in the US is to accelerate the trimming of soft costs. Hardware R&D can take care of itself.

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