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While solar energy proponents, skeptics and pundits were debating the renewable energy source’s future, solar became mainstream.

ABOVE: U.S. Solar 2011 Year in Review in One Graphic via GreenTechMedia.

2011 will likely be judged as the year solar energy came of age, as examples of solar and wind energy developments last year are too numerous to list. Below are a few highlights.

- U.S. Photovoltaic Solar energy installations grew from 152 megawatts of power installed in the first quarter of 2010 to 776 megawatts in the fourth quarter of 2011. Year over year increases were 887 megawatts in 2010 to 1,855 megawatts in 2011 or a growth rate of 209%.

- Solar energy attracted massive investments from big money investors such as Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, KKR, MetLife and John Hancock. These well-known investors claim solid 15% returns from their solar investments. “A solar power project with a long-term sales agreement could be viewed as a machine that generates revenue,” said Marty Klepper, an attorney at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP, which helped arrange a solar deal for Buffett. “It’s an attractive investment for any firm, not just those in energy.”

- General Electric, already a major player in wind energy, broke ground on a $400 million solar panel manufacturing plant in Aurora, Colorado, which will be the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the nation. GE will be competing with First Solar in CdTe thin film solar technology that has already established the world’s lowest manufacturing cost for solar panels. The entry of GE into thin film can only mean even lower prices for solar and more widespread adoption for residential, commercial and utility scale projects.

- Solar PV panel prices decreased 50% in 2011, resulting in an average 20% drop in total installation costs. The rapid price decline caused business failures for manufacturers introducing new technology and for non-cost competitive companies.

- Solar electric energy grew in all market segments including residential, solar and utility scale.

- California reached a total of one gigawatt of residential solar power. California homeowners’ roofs now generate power equal to one nuclear power plant.

- “With 30-year Treasuries yielding about 3.4 percent, investors are seeking safe places to park their money for years at a higher return. Solar energy fits the bill, with predictable cash flows guaranteed by contract for two decades or more. Those deals may be even more lucrative because many were signed before the cost of solar panels plunged 50 percent last year.”

- Dan Reicher, executive director of Stanford University’s center for energy policy and finance in California, said, “The beauty of solar is once you make the capital investment, you’ve got free fuel and very low operating costs.”

- Renewable energy is cheap today. The following are some key quotes from Climate Progress’s report on the solar market:

  • Last year was the first time global investments in renewable energy surpassed investments in fossil fuels
  • The United States is currently leading in corporate R&D and venture capital investments in clean energy globally, and last year retook the top spot in overall investment with a 33 percent increase to $55.9 billion
  • Some wind developers are signing long-term power-purchase agreements in the 3 cents a kilowatt-hour range, far cheaper than any other new power source. 
  • The clean energy sector is growing at a rate of 8.3 percent, nearly double the growth rate of the overall economy. 
  • The global market for clean energy was worth a whopping $250 billion in 2011. 
  • Solar energy development in Arizona increased by 333 percent in 2011. 
  • In California solar developers have signed contracts for power below the projected price of natural gas from a 500-MW combined-cycle power plant. 

The road ahead for solar and wind now seems clear. Prices are falling dramatically; leading financial institutions and manufactures have accepted solar and wind as mainstream industries; the use of fossil fuels continues to decline in energy production; electric power from coal in the U.S. has dropped from 50% to less than 40%; plans for more than 100 new coal fired power plants have been cancelled as retirement of older coal fired facilities has increased; the economics of solar and wind have made renewable energy the fuel of choice.

The transition from mining and burning coal and uranium for electric power to harnessing the free fuel of solar and wind will take a few years to complete, but the outcome is inevitable. Solar and wind will win.

  1. Save money on your electric bill. Homeowners can buy or lease solar electric panels and save money on their electric bill by generating a large portion of the electricity they use. 
  2. Take advantage of incentives. Utility companies and state and federal governments offer generous incentives for residential solar installations. Be sure to use them if you’re interested in going solar, and sooner rather than later before they are gone! 
  3. Protect yourself from future utility rate increases. Since you will be generating most of your electric power from sunlight, you will not see an increase in your electric bill when rates increase. 
  4. Be a hero with your friends and neighbors by showing them your low cost electricity bills. Also help them learn how they can save on their electric bills with a solar system. 
  5. Give a home tour of your solar electric system on a sunny day. Your friends, family and neighbors will be amazed when they see your electric meter running backwards. 
  6. Reduce air emissions from fossil fuels by producing clean solar electricity from sunlight, the ultimate renewable energy resource. 
  7. Help stimulate the state and local economy by keeping your energy dollars at home. Arizona imports almost all the energy we use, whether it’s petroleum, coal or natural gas. Residential solar keeps our energy dollars at home. 
  8. Help provide local jobs for solar manufacturing, sales and installation companies. Most Arizona solar installation companies are locally owned and solar manufacturing companies that supply solar panels, mounting hardware, power inverters, glass and other solar energy components are increasingly located in Arizona. 
  9. Sleep well at night knowing that you are powering your house with clean energy from the sun and improving air quality. 
  10. Dream about the day you get a plug-in electric car and fuel your it with power from your solar roof. And then stop dreaming and get one!

Solar Coach Corner is a weekly column by Arizona SmartPower’s Solar Coach. These posts will go up every Tuesday and are meant to spark conversation about clean energy and energy efficiency topics, so join in by submitting your own comments below!

Modern industrial society is highly dependent on energy to power our economy — energy costs and uncertain energy supplies are closely correlated to recession and prosperity — yet strong fossil fuel lobbying has hampered U.S. development of a comprehensive strategic energy plan.

As an advocate of renewable energy, I’m placing my BET on three areas of energy upgrades: Buildings, Electricity and Transportation. 

Better Buildings:

Buildings consume 43 percent of the energy used in the United States. Much of this energy is used for heating, cooling and lighting. When we go shopping at the mall or dine out at our favorite restaurant, one large component of the price we pay goes towards the building’s energy costs. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

We know how to build net-zero energy homes using off-the-shelf technology at only five percent above traditional construction costs. We also know how to dramatically reduce the energy consumption of commercial buildings. The U.S. Green Building Council has shown the way to energy and environmental responsibility in new construction, now it’s just a matter of us following their lead.

Evolution of Electrical Power Generation:

On a level playing field, solar and wind are much cheaper than fossil fuels. If renewables received federal subsidies equal to fossil fuels, we would have witnessed a much speedier transition to a clean economy. Even without the same federal support, renewables are quickly gaining traction across the world as a better, cleaner and safer form of power generation.

Solar and wind have the potential to provide all our energy needs, yet the electric power industry continues to support the notion that we will always need coal, natural gas or nuclear power for base load. To that I say that we put a man on the moon, sequenced the human genome and invented the internet. Surely we can replace costly, polluting fossil fuels with cheap, clean and renewable energy.

Scientific American published an article in 2008 regarding the potential of solar electricity. The article documented that a 96 square-mile land area in the Southwest U.S., achieving 10 percent efficiency, could produce the equivalent of all the energy used in the United States. Because solar electricity is now highly price competitive with fossil fuels, thirty thousand utility scale solar projects will soon be energizing our homes and businesses. Each of these projects, and each solar rooftop installation, advances us toward that 96 square-mile goal.

Wind-generated electricity is also very low cost and continually getting lower. Technological innovations and economies of scale continue to reduce wind electricity costs, and higher wind towers and offshore wind farms contribute to improved reliability.

Solar and wind will continue to decrease in price as fossil fuel and nuclear costs inevitably increase. We must consider; what are the costs associated with mountaintop removal and disasters such as Fukushima? The threats posed by the extraction and creation of these energy sources simply don’t arise in conversations about clean energy and electricity.

Transportation Technology:


The U.S. spends more than one billion dollars per day to import oil. Economic fairness requires that we consider the benefits of spending one billion dollars per day in developing domestic renewable energy and better batteries for transportation. When we consider the impressive results achieved with the comparably modest investments in car batteries and other technology, it’s easy to imagine that we will soon be driving electric cars powered by solar and wind.

Solar Coach Corner is a weekly column by Arizona SmartPower’s Solar Coach. These posts will go up every Tuesday and are meant to spark conversation about clean energy and energy efficiency topics, so join in by submitting your own comments below!

When it comes to high energy consumption, it’s hard to find a bigger consumer than the U.S. military. The numbers are staggering.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) uses enough electricity to power more than 2.6 million average U.S. homes and burns 4.6 billion gallons of liquid fossil fuels annually. What’s more is the level of dependence and vulnerability of the organization’s energy security. When prices go up, the military faces astronomical energy costs.

But military organizations are renowned for their ability to respond to a problem with a robust strategy — and that’s just what the DOD has been doing to address energy costs and security.

Sustainability and renewable energy are cornerstones of the DOD’s energy strategy. After years of gradual increases in the use of LEED standards, the U.S. Army has officially adopted a new standard for sustainability and green building practices.

“We are on a path to integrating energy and sustainability considerations into our fundamental way of thinking as we progress toward net-zero energy, water and waste in buildings and installations” said Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and the environment (IE&E).

But can an energy consumer like the military be seriously considering a net-zero energy policy? It seems an impossible stretch at best or an unachievable fantasy at worst. But the DOD has vast undeveloped assets for energy production. Solar energy potential is foremost among those assets.

The DOD recently released the results of a yearlong study that shows nine military bases in California and Nevada have space available to generate 7,000 megawatts of electric power — the equivalent of seven nuclear power plants! The footprint for these installations is a mere 1 percent of the total available space at these facilities. What’s more, converting this 1 percent of available space to solar power production will not interfere with base missions and will not endanger critical wildlife habitat.

If 1 percent of the footprint from nine installations in the southwest can replace seven nuclear power plants, the DOD strategy of net-zero energy seems not only plausible, but very possible.

We have witnessed a free-fall in solar electric prices in recent years. 2011 alone saw a 50 percent drop in the cost of solar electric panels. Observers say that there is no end in sight for the decline in solar prices, so with ever-increasing cost and security issues from traditional energy sources, the DOD seems poised to set an example for other organizations by transitioning to more solar.

I look forward to the day the U.S. can pride itself not only on its military strategies, but also on the energy and sustainability strategies of its military.