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In 2017, the solar industry is perhaps the strongest it’s ever been. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) revealed in June that over 2 megawatts of photovoltaic capacity were added in the first quarter alone. A total of 44.7 gigawatts of capacity in the United States now means more than 8.7 million homes can be powered by solar power. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that 11.2 gigawatts of capacity went online in 2016, compared to 8 gigawatts for natural gas and 6.8 for wind power.

In terms of growth, solar is dominating over other forms of power generation. Just 1 percent of all electricity came from solar in the U.S. during 2016, and other sources included:

  • 34 percent from natural gas.

  • 30 percent from coal.

  • 20 percent from nuclear power plants.

  • 6 percent from wind power.

  • 2 percent from biomass.

  • 1 percent from petroleum.

Other Trends in Solar

There are several signs that the solar power industry is taking off. The main indicators include:

Jobs: Over 260,000 people were working in the U.S. solar industry in 2016. That was up 25 percent from 2015 and double the number of workers in 2012, according to The Solar Foundation’s Job Census. Employment growth is being seen in 44 states and over 51,000 new jobs were added in 2016 alone. California had the most people employed in the industry, but Massachusetts, Texas, Nevada, Florida, and New York, although far behind, had their fair share.

Prices: The average cost to install photovoltaic panels, per watt, fell below $2 in 2016, as capacity has increased exponentially. In 2012, it was close to $4. This is far below 2009 prices when it was hovering at around $7.50.

New Capacity Share: Solar took over other technologies in this area during 2016. It accounted for about 39 percent of the all new electric generating capacity. By contrast, natural gas accounted for 29 percent and wind 26 percent. In Q1 2017, solar represented 30 percent of new capacity. This was second to natural gas (at 41 percent). Predictions by the SEIA show the number of installations will grow from 1.4 million to 2 million in 2018 and 4 million by 2022.

Annual Installations: Residential installations accounted for over 2,500 megawatts of power in early 2017, and commercial ones between 1,500 and 2,099 megawatts. In 2015, there were just 1,000 MW of commercial solar power installations, while residential growth topped 1,000 MW in 2014. Utility scale solar, according to the SEIA, accounted for 72 percent of new capacity in 2016, and should represent two-thirds of the gain for 2017.

Expected Growth: The SEIA predicts the growth in solar capacity to double that of 2015, at 12.6 gigawatts for this year. It also estimates annual additions of 18 gigawatts by 2022, with over 100 gigawatts worth of solar infrastructure in place by 2021.

What Is Fueling the Solar Industry?

Low prices are helping drive the demand for solar. Commercial prices have fallen by 58 percent, from 2012. There was a 16 percent fall in the past year alone. Environmental concerns with fossil fuel power production are behind much of the mindset behind solar. Photovoltaic panels do not emit the pollutants such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and ozone that traditional power plants do, nor is there any radiation like there is with nuclear plants. Plus, there are local and national tax incentives and rebates driving businesses and homeowners to get involved. Globally, companies in various countries are competing to offer solar energy. Solarpack is one example. The energy firm contracted to sell solar electricity for $29.1 per megawatt hour in Chile. Compared to a new natural gas plant, that is 58 percent less!

What Is Holding Solar Back?

With the unlimited availability of sunlight, there seems to be little to hold solar back, but there are some issues. Storage of solar energy is one of them. Since it can only be produced during the day, solar-generated electricity must be stored for it to provide a 24/7 supply of power. Concentrated solar power (CSP) facilities are able to meet this demand. The Quarzazate station, also called the Noor Power Station, in Morocco concentrates power using hundreds of mirrors. These focus the energy captured from the sun to heat a fluid, which is vaporized to create steam that drives turbines. The fluid also heats salts into molten material to produce steam that does the same trick, when the sun is down or not shining through the clouds.

The International Energy Agency estimated that CSP may produce over 11 percent of electricity in the world by 2050. Areas with the most potential include northern and southern Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Chile, and western North America.

Batteries are another concern, but the technology is improving. The cost of battery packs for homes is expected to go down in the coming years as well. That should make it more practical to store solar energy at home, so that photovoltaic installations are practical during any time of the day, in any kind of weather.

Other factors holding solar back include compatibility with grid infrastructure, but national transmission systems seem to be adapting. Production capacity is an issue. While a coal power plant may run at 80 percent capacity, solar panels may operate at just 15 percent, as has been measured in northern Europe. The lowering cost of solar, however, is appealing to many, especially with government policies that reward homeowners and businesses that install it.

Most of the pitfalls of solar power are being overcome, and technologies that offset capacity and other limitations seem to be set to advance in the near future. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted worldwide capacity would quadruple over 15 years. That was in 2000 – the increase it estimated actually happened in five years. The IEA’s forecast of moving from 5 to 14 gigawatts by 2015 occurred in just three years. In terms of growth, solar is certainly taking over, regardless of how much of a market share it has compared to other forms of power.

Sources: SEIA, Qz.com, weforum.org, Oilprice.com, EIA, Fortune, The Solar Foundation, The Guardian.

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