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Our year-end wrap-up discusses a sampling of the biggest solar energy trends, in the United States and worldwide, over the past year. Change is happening, and it’s happening fast.
The year 2017 has seen major advances in the public’s understanding of solar energy advantages. And it’s seen steady commercial progress. Residential solar power has not only grown; it has become completely normal, even desirable, in cities, suburbs, and beyond.
Solar Energy Trends
Solar energy has seen continual advancement throughout the year, thanks to an overall global effort to replace non-renewable sources with clean power. In the United States, a rising awareness of the importance of green energy has spurred substantial tax breaks and other incentives that encourage solar investment. Meanwhile, the industry is making PV panels more efficient and affordable than ever before.
- Solar Panels Are Now Affordable. Homeowners over the years have said no to solar panels because of the price tags on photovoltaic cells and the related components for rooftop systems. Not anymore. Solar panels are now manufactured and installed as part of a growing economy of scale. And strides in the technology means the value for money has increased rapidly. Now, many homeowners don’t find it daunting at all to switch off their old power sources and tap into a sunnier future.
- Solar Panels Are Performing. The key to efficiency is preserving the energy absorbed by solar panels, so that it converts effectively from DC into AC power, thereby generating electricity. It used to be that a solar panel could convert some 15% of its energy intake; but the technological progress of late has seen production of solar PV panels that convert close to 30% of energy into electricity. This year, with advances in cell configuration, a ratio of up to 46% is cited as technologically possible.
- Solar Co-ops Are Hitting Their Stride. Nonprofit solar energy providers co-operatively owned by their customers are enjoying a rise in popularity. And their output is impressive. According to details published by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, by the 2017 year-end, the solar power capacity of U.S. co-ops will be 5 times what it was just two years ago.
Political Shadows Haven’t Eclipsed Solar
The Trump administration hasn’t let go of the idea of a coal revival. It has dismissed renewables as a costly ideal that needs too much government support to work. Yet when 32 energy companies serving politically conservative states responded to a Reuters survey this year, they did not favor investing in coal projects. These companies pointed to the increasing economic viability of renewables.
Of the top 20% of states in new solar power installations this year, most are led by Republican governments. Reuters recently cited figures from renewable energy information clearinghouse GTM Research showing that the leading U.S. solar markets this year are central and southern states that voted for Trump. Alabama and Mississippi are rapidly expanding solar energy. Texas, Utah, and North Carolina each installed enough solar energy to run more than 700,000 households.
Many this is not surprising. After all, it was the Republican-led 2015 Congress that agreed to offer the tax credits for investors in renewables through 2020, rewarding those investments with a possible 30% of the price of commercial and residential installations.
And now, a solar power boom has risen in coal country. It’s expanding the job market so effectively that work in the solar sector has considerable appeal even for some former coal miners.
Solar Energy Facts
- Solar energy has reached the point where it’s widely affordable. Whereas PV panel installation once cost nearly $9 per watt, the price is under US$3.85 per watt in 2017.
- Solar energy is the most efficient source of clean energy, according to Infiniti Research, an international marketing intelligence firm.
- The expansion of solar capacity around the world has overtaken the net expansion of coal-based energy.
- Accessible prices and green energy policies in governments now drive a worldwide solar shift. We see this most dramatically in China — where close to half of all new PV panels now get installed.
- Second only to China, the United States leads in renewable energy expansion.
- The effect of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) has now become a significant factor for the solar energy sector. This four-decades-old U.S. law directs utilities to do business with small companies that sell renewable power — if the small firms’ prices can compete with the costs of fossil fuels. The solar sector has reached a key threshold: it has become capable of providing energy at prices that fall into that competitive range.
The Year Ahead: Solar Energy Advantages to Continue in 2018
The Joint Committee on Taxation in Congress recently projected that solar energy initiatives will receive a total of $12.3 billion in tax incentives from last year through 2020.
Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina has stated that green energy technology has reduced greenhouse gas emissions and is creating jobs in the thousands. Solar and other renewable energy will, Burr said, reach a level of success in the energy sector that will allow the government to reduce incentives for investors.
Burr’s statements reflect the reality of the current legal landscape, under which solar credits for utility projects are slated for gradual lowering, ultimately concluding with a permanent 10% from 2021 on. At that point, there the residential credit will have expired, and solar firms should have costs under control so that they are attractive to customers.
Yet solar providers are, as we’ve noted, investing heartily in non-coastal states, indicating their confidence in continued policy that will incentivize the national benefits that renewables offer.
Consider the Ameren Corporation in Missouri. This year, it announced that it will pour 100 new megawatts of solar power into its offerings through the next decade. And then there’s groSolar, a subsidiary of EDF of France. After growing in Vermont, it is now establishing a presence in Minnesota, viewing the Midwest as its top priority for expansion ahead.
The bottom line? Solar energy is now so decidedly cost-effective, that solar providers can predict healthy growth in conservative regions — regardless of whether or not the states’ lawmakers have enacted requirements for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Here’s to More Hours of Sunshine. . .
Best wishes to all of our readers for a happy Solstice and a bright New Year.
The Solar Digest will continue to spot trends in solar expansion, policies, pricing, and options in the new year — and we’ll keep our readers posted on all we find.