GreentechMedia did the work to determine “Solar Made Up 64% of New Electric Generating Capacity in the US in Q1 2016.” This first quarter is part a potential 119% growth in the solar industry in 2016 – greater than $30 billion in revenue. And these announcements are on top of many other recent solar proclamations – 1,000,000 rooftops, record low pricing, leadership in jobs count and growth, whole countries running on renewables and more. With the Earth setting record warm months, every single month, its good that solar power is becoming sexy – but can we keep up the pace long enough to win the war?
In very recent writings on this site – you’ve seen Ray Kurzweil proclaim we’ve got twelve more years until solar dominates and Tona Seba showing us with real data that some of these things are actually happening. As well, electrek.co quite often proclaims the ongoing electric car and battery revolution – both pieces which we think are important if the world is going to solve our pollution and climate change challenges.
Even with the high rates of growth for solar in the past 15 years, we’re only just now hitting the parts of the curve where those growth rates could have a meaningful effect.
In order to double the amount of solar power installed, we must grow our annual installation volume about 41% a year. In the United States, from the year 2000 through the end of 2015, the average growth rate was 71%. In fact, because we grew so fast from 2000 through 2015 – at the end of 2016, we’re going to be 11 years ahead of the doubling pace (we weren’t expected to hit 40GW of solar until sometime in 2027). Not to mention – from 2015 to 2016, we saw the amount of electricity generated by solar power increase by 50%! This is cool – but in that same chart – solar power is still only about 1% of total electrical generation in the USA and this summer we might see clear oceans in the Arctic.
In 2014 and 2015, solar installation volume grew “only” 30% and 21%, respectively. While 2016 is expected to be an explosive year of growth due to the formerly expiring 30% Tax Credit – 2017 and on are not projected to keep up with the 41% growth rates. Predictions for 2017 range from 10,000–12,5000MW – a decrease in installation rates from 2016, the first time growth has slowed in this industry in recent times. The industry isn’t predicted to meet its 2016 installation volume again until 2019 – however, at this point – even average years will be significant growth as we’ll be installing four 1MW nuclear power plants worth of electricity per year at this point.
While it is very important that we note that 64% of new energy installed being solar power is great – we have to consider the broader, more complex reality outside of one quarter’s installation volume – and simply looking at the April report from the Office of Energy Projects Energy Infrastructure changes the headline quite a bit. In the April report we see that 12 Natural Gas units, 2,900MW+ worth came online. That’s more than all of the solar in January through April (and at higher capacity factors). The very important broader picture view does show clear changes though, we have been building more and more clean energy capacity since 2010.
This energy transition is beginning to have the important effects that we require. Solar power is consistently increasing its share of generating capacity (see below image). In the United States enough renewables have been built that we are seeing coal and natural gas plants running significantly less. And even on a global level, 2015 we believe emissions didn’t grow any further even while the global economy did expand (this is mostly due to coal use falling significantly, but renewables are doing their part). And now that electric cars sales are growing at such a fast pace, we can take solace that the transportation industry is on its way toward cleaning itself up.
Of importance to note is that Solar Power is not the only clean energy source…in fact – it isn’t even the largest clean energy source. Nuclear Power, Hydroelectric and Wind each on their own far outpace solar power alone. It just so happens that in my 9-5, I work as a Solar Developer & Contractor in Massachusetts – a state that I moved to because of its very strong clean energy support (wind, hydro and solar support). We’re even starting to focus hard on energy storage.
Can we continue at this torrid pace of growth? Is it even healthy? Remember – doubling every two years means installation rates must increase by 41% a year. Doubling solar power every two years also probably means we live in an energy rich utopia by 2040. My opinion is that 2017 through 2019, solar power will not continue a 41% growth rate – however – when we combine all of the technologies and techniques we are learning to combat global emissions – we will see our emissions begin to fall (and not just flat line). And that, in the end, is the whole purpose of this game.