Future Fears Drove Late-2011 Solar Surge

In its last quarterly report on the North American photovoltaic (PV) market, NPD Solarbuzz warned that uncertainties related to the end of the federal Section 1603 Cash Grant program and SolarWorld’s trade dispute with China would start to reshape market supply and pricing of PV modules at the end of last year. That report estimated that the last quarter of 2011 would see a record deployment of 800 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale photovoltaic (PV) power plants. But, actual number has turned out to even higher than that; with 930 megawatts (MW) installed in North America.

According to the latest North American PV Markets Quarterly report, large-scale ground-mounted systems accounted for 59 percent of this total, and two-thirds of demand was represented by the big solar markets of New Jersey, California, Arizona and Ontario.

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In the U.S., the increase can largely be attributed to developers scrambling to get systems installed prior to the expiration of the Section 1603 program on Dec. 31, 2011. The industry has been pushing lawmakers for an extension; so far, however, their efforts have been to no avail. California’s $200 million refunding of the California Solar Initiative (CSI)—the nation’s largest ratepayer funded incentive program—also helped bring a backlog of residential PV systems online.

But what does this mean for 2012 and beyond? To some extent, a big pipeline of nonresidential and utility PV projects—25 gigawatts (GW) worth—will continue to support U.S. demand. This includes projects that qualified for the cash grant and that go toward state RPS requirements. Solarbuzz said such projects can be installed up to the end of 2016 as long as project developers “can either prove that physical work of a significant nature had begun by the end of 2011 or that they paid or incurred 5 percent or more of the total cost of the specified energy property before the end of 2011.”

Lower equipment prices and the spread of solar leasing and financing programs will also support residential demand, but NPD Solarbuzz warns that demand will slow in five key states that have already met their RPS requirements.

Lauren Craig is a writer and consultant living in Seattle, WA. She holds an M.S. in International Development from Tulane University, and is co-founder of Sustainable Systems Integrators, LLC., an employee-owned solar energy design and installation firm in New Orleans, LA. She is also certified in PV design and installation by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).