Big Solar Is Having A Banner Year In US

We’re only eight months into the year, and utility-scale solar installations in the United States have already surpassed the total for all of last year.

Data from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [PDF] shows 1,774 megawatts of new Big Solar capacity as of the end of August – compared to 1,476 MW for the entire year of 2012.

utility-scale solar power

Centinela Solar Energy plant in Imperial County, Calif. (image via SDG&E)

While solar is humming along this year, wind installations have slowed dramatically from the furious pace set in 2012, when the feared expiration of the production tax credit drove the industry over the 13,000-MW mark in new capacity for the first time. So far, just 959 MW of new wind has gone in, making it almost certain that solar will emerge as the largest new source of U.S. renewable energy capacity for 2013.

The utility-scale solar total is in a separate category from rooftop solar, the stuff that goes on homes, businesses, warehouses and the like. That type of solar had been growing dramatically in the U.S. until this year, although there are signs growth might be leveling off.

But on the utility-side it’s clearly full speed ahead.

Projects are happening all over the country – in August alone, 10 solar plants with a total capacity of 19.5 MW came online in North Carolina, and other plants began operating in Massachusetts, Michigan and Delaware. But the really big gains were – and figure to continue to be – posted in California, where an aggressive renewable portfolio standards requires investor-owned utilities to source one-third of their electricity from renewables by 2020 (and big hydro doesn’t count).

California projects that began making their way through the regulatory process several years ago are now coming online in clusters. For example, in Imperial County alone in August, 464 megawatts, all being fed to San Diego Gas & Electric, kicked in. SDG&E also got a fresh 67 MW bolt of sun power from Phase 2 of the Catalina Renewable Project in Kern County.

One thing working in solar’s favor is its increasing competitiveness on price. The recent SEIA/GTM report for the quarter ended  June 30 showed “utility system prices once again declined quarter-over-quarter and year-over-year, down from $2.60/W in Q2 2012 and $2.14/W in Q1 2013, settling at $2.10/W in Q2 2013.” The report noted that for larger projects, the costs can be even lower.

 

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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