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:
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.
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!
U.S. homeowners looking to save money with solar energy may find that the road to residential solar energy has a steep learning curve and is filled with potholes, detours and wrong turns. Fortunately, a solar roadmap has been constructed by reliable sources.
Check out this map to find solar mile markers in your state: http://www.dsireusa.org/
North Carolina State University maintains the above website, which provides a comprehensive database of solar information for all U.S. states and territories. The database contains information about solar rules, regulations and policies for each state. Perhaps the most helpful aspect of the website is the list of incentives available for residential solar energy.
All U.S. taxpayers can take advantage of the 30 percent Federal Tax Credit for residential solar electricity. The N.C. State roadmap provides a list of financial incentives specific to each electric utility. These incentives are usually in the form of tax credits, utility rebates and financial incentives from cities and local governments. Some states provide “performance based incentives” such as feed-in tariffs. With feed-in tariffs, homeowners receive a premium price for electricity generated from renewable sources.
Germany has used such tariffs to become the world leader in solar energy: http://rredc.nrel.gov/solar/calculators/PVWATTS/version1/
The U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab maintains a website, PV Watts, which provides a Performance Calculator for Grid Connected PV Systems. This website can be used to predict the amount of electricity produced by a solar electric system for every U.S. geographical location based on the solar system size and installation criteria.
Homeowners can use this website to provide an independent estimate when considering installation of a solar electric system.
Homeowners need not be intimidated when considering an investment in solar energy. There are so many reliable data resources that can be used to evaluate costs and benefits of solar. Homeowners familiar with information from these sources can proceed with confidence when talking with solar energy providers for their homes.
If you are considering solar and have additional questions, please contact me, your Solar Coach, at dbacon[at]smartpower.org.