Quick! Close your eyes and picture the future. Is it solar-powered? If you said no, it’s time to unplug your reality television.
Here’s some brighter programming. Solar Energy Industries Association’s 2013 report on U.S. capacity installations is in (PDF), and it’s beyond safe to say that solar is on fire. Although it should come as a surprise to no one who has been paying attention to the sector, or our wider global energy picture, the photovoltaic year that was increased 40 percent over 2012, installed 4,751 megawatts and booked $13.7 billion in market value.
“The U.S. solar market showed the first real glimpse of its path toward mainstream status,” the SEIA report explains. “The combination of rapid customer adoption, grassroots support for solar, improved financing terms, and public market successes indicated clear gains for solar in the eyes of both the general population and the investment community.”
Predictably, half of that came from California, which is acting like a state that takes disruptive climate change quite seriously. It reigned above the rest with 2,745 MW, the only quadruple-digit winner of the bunch. Perhaps having installation leader SolarCity and efficiency leader Sunpower, whose stock grew 431 percent(!) last year in Cali’s backyard had a little something to do with that. Or it could be that historically progressive California has usually embraced the future as others have clung to the past. To wit, as SEIA’s 2013 report infographic notes, “half of all capacity ever added in California was installed in 2013.”
Other states are catching up, however. Last year, 100 percent of new electrical capacity installed in Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Missouri, Vermont and even gridlocked D.C. came thanks to solar. Arizona came behind California with 700 MW installed last year, which would likely have been higher were it not for a turf battle between utilities and net metering, as SolarEnergy has noted before.
Nationally speaking, however, America is statistically speeding up. In 2013, the sunshine industry accounted for 29 percent of all new electricity generation capacity, a notable increase from 10 percent in 2012, as costs further cratered 15 percent. SEIA forecasts 26 percent growth in photovoltaic installations for this year, mostly in the residential market. It all looks good on paper and in practice.
But no one should break out the party hats. Solar is literally in a death race with so-called natural gas, which accounted for a whopping 46 percent of new electrical generation capacity installed last year, taking first place in the competition for our new energy normal. As coal fades into memory, at least in America, solar is going to have to work even harder to persuade consumers, industry and especially government that it is the only true renewable energy in the global marketplace. Let’s get back to work.