Two new reports published in the span of a few days have shed light on the state of the US solar industry in 2018, revealing billions lost in cancelled projects due to the imposition of the solar tariff but expected flat growth that, according to GTM Research, is “actually pretty good news.”
It has been a rough 18 months for the US solar industry, with economic and political uncertainty contributing to cause consistent quarterly contraction throughout 2017 and a 15% decline from the previous year in capacity additions. Donald Trump’s presidency resulted in tax reform and the imposition of a 30% tariff on all imported solar cells and modules due to a Section 201 trade case brought in early 2017. Add to that natural market fluctuations as the industry matures and state-level policy shifts, and there’s an argument to be made that the US solar industry did relatively well for itself, considering everything working against it.
According to the latest U.S. Solar Market Insight Report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association, the US solar industry saw new additions worth 2.5 gigawatts (GW) in the first quarter, representing annual growth of 13%, and surpassing the 2 GW mark for the 10th straight quarter.
Further, solar PV accounted for 55% of all US electricity capacity added during the first quarter — a relatively strong performance in light of the change in political winds.
New U.S. Electricity Generating Capacity Additions, 2010-Q1 2018
“Coming off a year in which we saw such a downturn and consistent quarterly contraction, the news that the residential solar space was flat in Q1 is actually pretty good news,” said GTM Research senior solar analyst Austin Perea. “What that potentially shows is some of the bleeding may have stopped in the residential segment; it’s either stopped or slowing.”
Specifically, the residential PV sector saw flat quarter-over-quarter and year-over-year growth in the first quarter, despite a 15% contraction in 2017.
“This is a promising indicator that constraints to residential PV growth like segment-wide customer acquisition challenges and national installer pullback are abating,” added Perea. “However, these problems are not entirely solved, as we’re seeing slowdowns in states with a relatively high penetration of PV installations.”
The utility-scale segment installed 1.4 GW in the first quarter, also the 10th straight quarter to exceed the 1 GW mark. GTM Research is of the opinion that the sector is currently relatively insulated from the imposition of 30% import tariffs, but this is likely to shift in 2019. Nevertheless, GTM is still predicting growth for the utility-scale sector, with 6.6 GW expected by the end of the year, slightly higher than the 6.47 GW predicted in March.
The non-residential solar segment had its fourth-highest quarter ever with 509 megawatts (MW) installed, representing year-over-year growth of 23%, and driven primarily by community solar.
“The solar industry had a strong showing in the first quarter,” added SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper. “This data shows that solar has become a common-sense option for much of the US and is too strong to be set back for long, even in light of the tariffs. States from California to Florida have stepped up with smart policies that will drive investment for years to come.”
However, it has not all been good news for the industry, according to a report from Reuters earlier this month which pointed to more than $2.5 billion worth of projects cancelled since the imposition of the import tariff, and the loss of thousands of jobs.
Specifically, Cypress Creek Renewables was forced to cancel or halt $1.5 billion worth of projects — mostly in the Carolinas, Texas, and Colorado — while Southern Current was forced to similarly shelve or cancel $1 billion worth of projects.
“We anticipated billions of dollars of projects to be cancelled because of tariffs, and just four months in, at least $2.5 billion in projects have been cancelled,” said Morgan Lyons from SEIA in email to me. “As for jobs lost, we do not have an exact number at this point, but we are evaluating the tariff impacts and expect a net loss of thousands of jobs. We will have a firmer number by late this year, early next year on the real impacts of the first year of tariffs.”
In the end, GTM Research and SEIA are currently expecting the US solar market to continue to see growth over the next few years across all its market segments, despite the strong political headwinds after remaining flat throughout 2018 which, in the end, is really the best that we could have hoped for.
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