Solar Power on the Rise: Rooftop Solar, Large-Scale PV, CSP, and the Solar Revolution

, , Senior energy analyst | August 7, 2014, 8:36 am EDT
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Shining. Soaring. Skyrocketing. Solar is so exciting, we’re running out of adjectives.

The what, the why, and the where-to of America’s solar power revolution are the subjects of a new UCS report and infographic. It’s a story worth celebrating.

The 4 Ps of rooftop solarUCS Solar Power on the Rise cover

The story of solar, as told in UCS’s new Solar Power on the Rise report, is full of great news, such as:

  • The amount of solar power installed in the United States by 2013 was more than five times 2010’s level.
  • Our country has enough solar to power some 2.4 million typical U.S. households.
  • In June California set a one-day solar record, with solar meeting 8 percent of its overall electricity needs.

Rooftop solar, the photovoltaic (PV) panels dotting the roofs of a rapidly growing number of homes and businesses, is one big piece of the charge, worthy of a closer look.

And one way to consider its progress is to borrow business types’ “4 Ps” of marketing, for our own 4 Ps of solar—Product, pricing, place, and policy.

Product: Rooftop solar is one to watch

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Rooftop solar is now on 400,000 homes, 13 times more than in 2006 (Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

Rooftop solar is the most visible piece of America’s clean energy revolution, and a shining star in the energy firmament.

  • Rooftop solar in this country has grown an average of more than 50 percent per year, with its installed capacity tripling from 2010 to 2013.
  • PV now adorns some 400,000 homes, 13 times the number just eight years ago.

Pricing: Solar is getting more accessible all the time

One exciting driver behind the surge in rooftop systems has been the plummeting costs of solar, along with the innovative ways people are getting solarized.

  • From 2010 to 2013, the price of a typical household system dropped by almost 30 percent.
  • A typical system that might have cost $32,000 in 2010 may now cost $23,000, even before tax credits and other incentives; in leading states, the total final cost could be less than $10,000.
  • Leasing or power-purchase arrangements may make it even easier; two-thirds of new residential systems are third party-owned, often with low or no up-front payments.

Place: Solar works all over

One fact that isn’t always obvious (including to those of us in foggy and cloudy climates) is how widespread the solar resource is. When it comes to PV, to a great extent solar is an equal-opportunity renewable energy, as the resource map below shows.

Solar is a powerful resource across the country.

Sunlight for PV generation is a powerful resource across the country. A system in Portland, Maine, for example, on average generates 85 percent of what it would in Los Angeles, and 95 percent of what it would in Miami. The system in Maine would generate 6 percent more electricity than in Houston. (Source:

The near ubiquity of solar means that the U.S.’s 6,000 solar companies and 140,000 solar workers are spread across all 50 states.

Policy: Smart solar policies make a difference

What’s driving all this progress? Along with prices (and sunlight), it’s policies — from net-metering and value-of-solar tariffs, to state renewable electricity standards and solar carve-outs, plus tax incentives (federal, state, and local) — all creating demand and helping solar capture value. Forward-looking locales are putting it all together to great effect.

While still playing a smaller role than its better-known PV brethren, CSP has advantages that may serve it well—notably its ability to generate electricity hours after the sun has gone down. The Solana project is one of several U.S. CSP projects incorporating storage. (Source: NREL)

While still playing a smaller role than its better-known PV brethren, CSP has advantages that may serve it well—notably its ability to generate electricity hours after the sun has gone down. The Solana project in Arizona is one of several U.S. CSP projects incorporating storage. (Source: NREL)

The revolution scales up

Another great thing about the exciting solar story is that it isn’t just about rooftop PV. Large-scale PV and concentrating solar power (CSP) have their own amazing stories to tell.

Electricity from new large PV projects in 2013 is half as expensive as in 2010, and installed costs are 60 percent lower than rooftop solar’s.

And CSP is set to have its best year ever; 2014 has already seen the world’s largest solar facility turn on, and more is on the way.

¡Viva la Revolución!

Keeping the solar revolution going will take determination and attention. Good investments. Smart policy decisions. Things like:

  • Maintaining strong renewable electricity standards and making sure solar plays a strong role in state plans to meet the EPA’s proposed power plant carbon standards
  • Sustaining the key support that solar has gotten from the 30 percent federal investment tax credit
  • Continuing to invest in building scale and improving technologies, including around energy storage
  • Helping utilities and regulators figure out new business models to let solar do what we need it to and know it can

Some of the great developments in rooftop solar are most easily seen in UCS’s exciting new solar infographic (below), which highlights:

  • The incredible drop in costs in recent years
  • Where rooftop solar might be poised to beat utility-supplied electricity (Hint: In more than half the states, now or in the very near future)
  • Solar’s growth trajectory, and what 2020 might bring (Hint: Millions of homes)

Just the beginning

Solar Power on the Rise concludes with this:

“From rooftops to landfills to large open spaces, harnessing the full power of solar energy will be a key part of our nation’s transition to clean, reliable, and affordable electricity that can safeguard our environment, protect our health, and power our economy.”

That’s how the report ends. But the solar revolution? No end in sight.

We may need to come up with some more adjectives.




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  • Sheila Gonzalez

    Do you know about the great campaign on solar power??? You can go through this and tell me what you think about it…

  • Isabelle Teraoka

    Solar is a much cleaner technology and so it is exciting to see its rise. I have a question though that I am hoping someone here can elucidate. Are there studies that look at the environmental footprint of the manufacturing process of solar panels? I read that some of the products used release powerful greenhouse gases that are more potent and long lasting than CO2. However, I have been unable to either refute or corroborate this claim. If it were true, it seems it is something we should pay attention to. Are there companies that do a better job in creating PV panels with less greenhouse gases released?

  • Tom Kay

    For the most efficient solar power system check out Highly Disruptive Technology MHD Generators are Ecologically Sound
    Breakthrough Technologies: CSPU will be using Superconducting Permanent Magnets for the first time with Magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) Power Plants.

  • James A. Singmaster, III, Ph.D

    This is only half of what we can get from the sun!!! UCS seems unaware of report in Sci, Dec. 7, 2012, pg 1341 from Indiana U. Scientists of using sun light with a catalyst to split water to get hydrogen, THE CLEAN ENERGY FUEL!!! Previous report in 2010 by Nocera at MIT on another such catalyst seems to have gotten very little attention by UCS staff. Cars and buses are already running on H2 in CA, but UCS staff seems to be unable to stop CAN’T canting on bad energy with very little CAN DO action proposing until this on solar electricity. UCS needs to step forward on MAKING THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY SOURCE!!!!!!!!
    Thomas Edison, co-founder of UCS, stated in 1931, what we need to act on. He said:
    “I would put all my money on the SUN and solar energy! What an incredible and never ending source of power!!! I hope we don’t have to wait until all the coal and oil run out before we can tackle that fine idea!!!!!”
    I add and before we burn, boil or nuke ourslves off earth. If we use the SUN’s energy much more effectively and efficiently, we won’t need messy fossil and nuclear energy. J.Singmaster, Ph.D. UCDavis, 76, Environ. Chemist, Ret., Davis, CA

    • ucsjrogers

      Thank you for your enthusiasm for solar, Dr. Singmaster. UCS certainly supports solar, along with many other renewable energy sources. It seems clear that a mix of clean energy technologies and approaches will get us the best results, in terms of costs, environmental impact, and economic development. We’ll keep pushing for policies and understanding that will help to bring that about.

      – John