One decade ago, I was writing about the rapid growth of solar power in the United States and the exciting forecast for much more solar growth in the country. The past couple of years have again brought record solar installations in the United States, and record solar activity more broadly. Of course, this is driven in large part by record-low solar prices, but not only.
What’s Driving US Solar Power Growth?
Money, money, money — it’s hard to say that most of this growth doesn’t come down to continuous solar panel cost drops over the past decade, which as I reported last year led to an average rooftop solar power price of $2.19/watt across the USA and a Tesla rooftop solar power price of $1.49/watt across the country. Both prices are the price after the US solar tax credit, aka Investment Tax Credit (ITC), takes 26% off the consumer cost.
Related, the federal solar tax credit was on the verge of dropping from 26% of the cost of a solar power system to 22% after 2020, but it was extended at the end of the year. A desire to get the 26% credit before it was cut to 22% surely led to a solar power rush throughout the year. It turns out the tax credit was extended at the end of the year, but that doesn’t mean the systems installed due to the potential expiration are any less real.
How Much Did US Solar Power Grow In 2020?
As noted above, the big-picture view is of solar activity — or solar PV module shipments — which includes solar panel (aka solar module) imports, solar panel exports, solar panels produced, and solar panels sold domestically. (I know, it seems like a somewhat weird accumulation of different activities.) They rose to 21.8 million peak kilowatts (kW) of solar power capacity in 2020, by far their best ever. In fact, that was 5.4 million peak kW above 2019’s total, their previous best.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration adds that the COVID-19 crisis may have given rooftop solar a boost, too. “Demand for residential solar installations increased in 2020 in part because people were spending more time at home, which in turn resulted in an increased interest in home improvement.”
Though, the growth wasn’t all about rooftop solar. In fact, utility-scale solar saw an even bigger growth spurt than rooftop solar. Utility-scale solar PV installations (1 MW and above) rose by 29% in 2020, compared to 2019, whereas small-scale solar rose by 19%. The average of the two was 25% growth.
Low solar power costs combined with growing awareness and greater increase in energy self-reliance have surely led to further solar power growth in 2021, but there likely won’t be a rush induced by changes to the tax incentives again until 2022, since the 26% credit extension went through 2022, dropping to 22% in 2023 (unless it gets extended again, but that seems unlikely).
“The average value (a proxy for price) of solar shipments decreased from $1.96 per peak watt in 2010 to $0.38 per peak watt in 2020,” the EIA writes, referencing the graph above. “Lower supply chain costs and an oversupply of modules because of increased production are largely responsible for the declines in the average value of solar PV modules over the past decade.”
And here are a few more stats from the EIA team, with lead writing by Lolita Jamison: “In 2020, 89% of U.S. solar PV module shipments were imports. PV module imports in 2020 totaled 19.3 million peak kilowatts (kW), an increase of 26% from the 15.3 million peak kW imported in 2019. Vietnam was the leading importer to the United States, followed by Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand.”
As far as where in the US all of this solar power gets installed, as could be expected, the three most populated states in the nation — each of which have more than ample solar energy resources — stand out well above the crowd. Though, #4 Virginia shows an impressively large contribution, coming out of nowhere compared to previous years (it was #14 in 2018 and #19 in 2019). North Carolina, South Carolina, and New York round out the top 7, with the first and the last in that trio very familiar with top rankings, and the middle child improving on a very solid 2019 total. Here’s a short bullet-point summary for the top 10 in 2020 since the table below is a bit hard to read (all figures in MWdc):
- California — 3904
- Texas — 3425
- Florida — 2822
- Virginia — 1406
- North Carolina — 785
- South Carolina — 617
- New York — 544
- Arizona — 503
- Utah — 427
- New Jersey — 387
2021 and Beyond
What will 2021, 2022, and 2023 bring?
The U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) projects that 2021 will set an even significantly stronger solar power installation record, and then will grow a bit more gradually in 2022 and 2023 before dropping off for a few years in 2024, 2025, and 2026 due to the US solar tax credit reduction.
The trends are expected to be approximately the same in both the small-scale (typically rooftop) solar PV market and the utility-scale solar PV market.
We shall see.
Is It Time To Go Solar?
This is always the question, and the answer is always “yes.” There are a variety of factors to consider and it’s a decision for each person, family, or business to look at closely themselves. However, year after year, it is typically the case that there’s a lot of money to be made, or saved, by going solar. If financing, the long-term savings often beat business-as-usual retail electricity purchasing. If considering a cash purchase, one can also take into account other investment opportunities and risk-reward levels. One way or another, though, going solar often makes financial sense. And when you take into account the climate catastrophe we’re facing, it’s just the right thing to do.
Considering going solar at a home or business? If so, I always recommend getting at least 3 quotes from solar installers (they’re always free), looking carefully at the terms and conditions, and consulting with someone who has already gone solar if you have the opportunity. If you end up deciding on going solar with Tesla, feel free to use my referral code — https://ts.la/zachary63404 — for a $100 discount (and a bit of a bonus for me, too). That works for either conventional solar panels or a Tesla Solar Roof (solar tiles).