Large-scale Solar Power’s Beautiful Bubbles: Falling Prices, Growing Reach

, senior energy analyst, Clean Energy | February 9, 2016, 12:12 pm EST
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Like so many reports on renewable energy these days, the 2016 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook is full of good news. And one graph in particular does a great job of pointing to what renewables are achieving these days, all across the country.

The Factbook, from the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), covers a year that BCSE president Lisa Jacobson callsa turning point for American energy,” and BNEF Senior Analyst Colleen Regan says was “on almost all measures,… a fantastic year for sustainable energy.” And their data bear that out.

Price, price, price, and location, location, location

But it’s their beautiful bubble graph on large-scale solar that grabbed my attention. It shows project sizes, prices, and geographic regions.

What's happened with large-scale solar; the bubbles sizes show the project capacity (megawatts) and the Y-axis shows the costs of long-term solar power purchase agreements, or PPAs (in dollars per megawatt-hour). (Source: BCSE/BNEF 2016 Factbook)

What’s happened with large-scale solar; the bubbles sizes show the project capacity (megawatts) and the Y-axis shows the costs of long-term solar power purchase agreements, or PPAs (in dollars per megawatt-hour). (Source: BCSE/BNEF 2016 Factbook)

Two things about the graph seem especially notable:

  • Falling bubbles – That further proof of dropping prices is great to see. Along with demonstrating effects of pro-solar policies in the 2009 stimulus bill and elsewhere, the data show the falling prices of the components—solar PV modules, in particular—plus higher efficiencies, and presumably a lot of learning about how to do big projects effectively.
  • Spreading bubbles – The other thing that jumped out at me is the geographic spread of the projects across the country, as shown in the different bubble colors. From California and the Southwest, large-scale solar has spread to the Southeast, Texas, the middle of the country (“SPP” and “MISO”), and even the Northwest. Low prices, across the country, in all kinds of climates.

Even the phenomenon of shrinking bubbles is a good sign, showing that the economics continue to improve even as we broaden far beyond large desert systems.

As it happens, both the economic and geographic trends mirror what’s going on elsewhere in renewables. Like their large-scale brethren, rooftop solar systems have gotten cheaper and cheaper, bringing them within range of more people in more locations. Wind power keeps getting cheaper, too, and wind turbines with longer blades and taller towers make projects attractive even in areas with lower wind speeds. And wind power’s geographic diversity got a great bump up with the first U.S. offshore wind project, now under construction off Rhode Island.

Beautiful bubbles, with lots to say about large-scale solar, and a whole lot more.

[For more Factbook fun, check out the related infographic, too.]

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