Closer Look Shows Way More US Solar Power

There’s no better source for data on energy than the Energy Information Administration (EIA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Energy. But when it comes to solar energy and how much of it is being generated annually, the EIA is apparently out to lunch.

According to Michael Mendelsohn, a market and policy impact analyst at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado, EIA misses not just some but the majority of solar energy generated. How can this be?

solar power generation,nrel

image via National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Mendelsohn said in a blog post that it’s because “the agency’s numbers only capture facilities over 1 megwawatt (MW), and even then, likely miss production as system owners may not know of their obligation to report this information.”

That’s right: EIA statistic don’t include all the power coming from the thousands and thousands of small systems people have installed on their roofs in recent years, nor from the fairly big systems that have gone in on warehouses and business and maybe even some of the larger systems that are supposed to be part of the data.

Mendelsohn used numbers from the Solar Energy Industries Association to try to get at a figure that better captured U.S. solar power production. There were some complexities and hurdles in doing this, and he had to make some adjustments and assumptions. But even taking a very conservative route, Mendelsohn arrived at a production number of 4,958 gigawatt-hours (GWh) for 2011 — about 2.6 times the EIA number of 1,800 GWh.

This could be a nice bit of info to throw back at some solar detractors when he points to graphs like the one above and snickers at solar’s seemingly tiny contribution. It’s still small, but it’s not that small.

But Mendelsohn said there’s a more important reason to know the real amount of solar being generated. With good data, it could be easier to convince big money to back investment vehicles that pull together projects – solar securitization it’s called.

“Solar securitization could allow pension funds and other money managers to invest in the industry with the benefit of a diversified portfolio and a tradable, market-priced product —  important criteria to investors who don’t have the resources or risk capacity to evaluate and invest in projects individually,” Mendelsohn wrote.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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