Solar industry reports record U.S. growth in 2015

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 25, 2016

The United States installed almost 7.3 gigawatts of new solar photovoltaic capacity in 2015, marking a fifth consecutive year in which the industry added at least 1 GW of new generation, according to data released today by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research.

The 17 percent year-over-year growth from 2014 extends solar PV’s unprecedented boom since 2010 and places PV solar on a trajectory for even larger gains through 2020, according to industry experts.

Also, solar exceeded natural gas as a source of new power generation for the first time, accounting for 29.5 percent of all electricity added to the grid in 2015, according to GTM and SEIA. By comparison, wind energy accounted for 38.7 percent of all new generation, while gas’s share was 28.8 percent.

“Without a doubt, 2015 was a monumental year for the U.S. solar industry, and perhaps what’s most amazing is that we’re only getting started,” SEIA President and CEO Rhone Resch said in a statement announcing the annual figures.

“Over the next few years, we’re going to see solar continue to reach unprecedented heights as our nation makes a shift toward a carbon-free source of energy that also serves as an economic and job-creating engine,” he added.

Industry experts project that with the recent extension of the investment tax credit, the U.S. solar sector will pass the 100 GW mark by 2021, with 98 GW of rooftop and ground-mounted PV and 2 GW of concentrated solar power.

But the industry still faces obstacles, including resistance from some utilities and state regulators to allow distributed rooftop solar to compete against other rate-based sources of power. A handful of states, for example, are considering proposals to roll back net-metering policies that allow owners of rooftop solar systems to sell excess generation back to the grid at retail rates.

Benefit of the ‘neighborhood effect’

Solar proponents say that net metering is essential to solar’s continued growth in the United States. Critics counter than utilities are bearing additional costs to collect, manage and distribute excess solar energy that flows back onto the grid from electrified rooftops.

According to GTM, 10 states accounted for 87 percent of all installed solar capacity in 2015. But Shayle Kann, senior vice president of GTM Research, said the industry’s footprint continues to expand, with nearly half of the states seeing some market growth in 2015, while 13 states installed at least 100 megawatts of new capacity.

The top solar markets for 2015 are California, North Carolina, Nevada, Massachusetts and New York, according to GTM, while Utah and Georgia made the largest year-over-year gains, ranking No. 7 and No. 8 respectively for 2015.

Utility-scale solar projects accounted for more than half of the 7,286 MW added in 2015 and saw 6 percent year-over-year growth for 2014, according to the data. New residential solar systems exceeded 2,000 MW for the first time in 2015, a 66 percent increase from 2014, and now represent 29 percent of the entire U.S. solar market, GTM found.

The nonresidential solar market broke the 1 GW mark for a fourth consecutive year but remained generally flat year over year, the data showed.

SEIA Vice President Dan Whitten said in a telephone interview that the double-digit growth in residential solar is driven by a variety of factors. They include steeply falling installation costs; the proliferation of third-party solar leases and other financing options to buy solar panels; and the “neighborhood effect,” where a product or technology gains popularity by word of mouth and by becoming more visible in neighborhoods.

Such trends are expected to translate into a significant increase in solar’s share of the national energy market from an estimated 1 percent of total generation today to more than 3 percent by the end of the decade. “It’s getting to the point where it’s taking a nice bite out of the pie of the nation’s generation portfolio,” Whitten said.