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Berkeley Lab’s Latest “Utility-Scale Solar” Report Analyzes Record Deployment & Higher Value in 2021

We are pleased to release the 2022 edition of Berkeley Lab’s Utility-Scale Solar report, which presents analysis of empirical plant-level data from the U.S. fleet of ground-mounted photovoltaic (PV), PV+battery, and concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) plants with capacities exceeding 5 MWAC. While focused on key developments in 2021, this report explores trends in deployment, technology, capital and operating costs, capacity factors, the levelized cost of solar energy (LCOE), power purchase agreement (PPA) prices, and wholesale market value among the fleet of utility-scale solar (and PV+battery) plants in the United States.

The report, published in slide-deck format, is accompanied by a narrative summary briefing, interactive data visualizations, and a public data file, all available through the link above. The authors will host a free webinar summarizing key findings from the report on September 28, 2022, at 10:00 AM PT/1:00 PM ET. Please register for the webinar here:

The following are a few key findings from the latest edition of the report.

A record amount of new utility-scale PV capacity achieved commercial operations in 2021. Annual capacity additions of 12.5 GWAC brought cumulative installed capacity to 51.3 GWAC across 44 states (see map below). Texas (3.9 GWAC) added by far the most new capacity in 2021, followed by California (1.2 GWAC), Florida (1.1 GWAC), and Virginia and Georgia (both with 0.9 GWAC).

Single-axis tracking is the dominant mount type. 90% of all new utility-scale PV capacity added in 2021 uses single-axis tracking, with the remainder mounted at a fixed tilt.

Despite emerging inflationary pressures, installed costs fell in 2021. Median installed costs declined to $1.35/WAC (or $1.0/WDC) based on a 5.4 GWAC sample of 62 plants completed in 2021, and have fallen by more than 75% (averaging 10% annually) since 2010. The lowest-cost 20th percentile of plants in our 2021 sample cost $1.1/WAC ($0.8/WDC) or less.

Plant-level capacity factors vary widely, from 9% to 35% (on an AC basis), with a sample median of 24%. The high degree of plant-level variation is based on a number of factors, including insolation, tracking vs. fixed-tilt mounts, inverter loading ratios, performance degradation, and curtailment.

Utility-scale PV’s LCOE fell to $33/MWh on average in 2021. The average LCOE has fallen by about 85% (averaging 16% annually) since 2010, driven by lower capital costs and improving capacity factors (as well as other factors).

PPA prices from a sample of contracts signed in 2021 average $23/MWh (levelized, in 2021 dollars). PPA prices, which reflect receipt of the federal investment tax credit (ITC), have largely followed the decline in solar’s LCOE over time, but since 2019 have stagnated and even increased slightly (see graph below).

Rising wholesale electricity prices boosted solar’s market value by 50% on average in 2021, to $47/MWh. This increase in solar’s combined energy and capacity value outpaced the more-modest rise in PPA prices, thereby improving solar’s competitiveness (see graph below).

Solar’s market value also exceeded average electricity prices in most regions in 2021. Exceptions include ERCOT, CAISO, Nevada Power, and ISO-NE. Compared to 2020, however, solar’s relative value versus a “flat block of power” contracted in 13 of the 17 regions analyzed.

2021 was also a record year for PV+battery hybrid plants. Adding battery storage to shift a portion of excess mid-day solar generation into evening hours is one way to increase the value of solar. These PV+battery hybrid projects are becoming increasingly common, particularly in higher-penetration markets. In 2021, 47 PV+battery hybrid plants totaling 3.5 GWAC of PV and 2.2 GW / 6.9 GWh of battery storage achieved commercial operations, while many additional hybrids entered the development pipeline. The report presents plant metadata, including installed costs and PPA prices, from a subset of these online and in-development PV+battery hybrids.

A massive pipeline of utility-scale solar plants dominate the interconnection queues across the country. Looking ahead, at least 674 GW of solar capacity was in the nation’s interconnection queues at the end of 2021. Nearly 284 GW, or 42%, of that total was paired with a battery.

All of the data and analysis presented in this 2022 edition of Utility-Scale Solar (link is external) pre-dates the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. This new law, with its many incentives aimed at stimulating clean energy deployment, is likely to have a significant impact on the utility-scale solar market in future years, potentially accelerating some trends and slowing others, while also creating new developments altogether. We look forward to tracking the industry’s progress in future editions of this report.

We appreciate the funding support of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office in making this work possible.

Article courtesy of Berkeley Lab. By Rebecca Martineau

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