The Latest on Solar’s Sweet Success, in 4 Great Graphs

March 10, 2017 | 9:10 am
Credit: J. Rogers
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

Winter is a great time for solar—solar data, that is. Even if the panels themselves are covered in snow (which mine haven’t been, given our spring-like winter), this is the time of year when the industry’s progress over the previous year becomes clear. The annual stats for 2016 have just been released, and they offer still more proof that clean energy momentum is quite a thing to behold. Here are four graphs of solar progress to celebrate.

The U.S. Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review, the product of a regular collaboration between GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association, is rich with insights:

1. Solar went in faster than ever before—by a huge margin.

Source: GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review

The graph above shows how solar’s annual installations have been climbing, year after year. The industry installed almost 15,000 megawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) last year.

Here are a few ways to think about that data point:

  • That’s a 97 percent increase over what went in during 2015, more than got installed in 2015 and 2014 combined, and 17 times what got installed during 2010.
  • While that number is made up of residential, commercial, and large-scale systems, if you were to think of it in terms of rooftop PV systems, at 5 kilowatts each, that would be 3 million homes’ worth.
  • And in terms of the electricity, that’s enough solar energy to fully power 2 million American homes.

2. Solar is a bigger piece of the picture than ever.

Source: GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review

Solar not only grew with respect to its past performance, it also dominated the electric sector as a whole, in terms of new “power plant” additions. The graph above shows how that portion has been steadily increasing. In 2016, for the first time ever, solar was the number one resource for new capacity, at 39%—30% more than natural gas.

  • The 2016 installations brought the U.S. solar total, counting both solar PV and concentrating solar power (CSP), to more than 42,000 megawatts—20 times what we had in 2010.
  • According to GTM-SEIA, a new solar project went in every 84 seconds, adding up to another megawatt of solar every 36 minutes.
  • 22 states added at least 100 megawatts of solar in 2016, and California added more than 5,000 megawatts, including 1,000 megawatts of large-scale solar alone in each of the last two quarters of the year.

3. Solar costs just keep getting lower.

Source: GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review

The pairs of columns in the graph above—residential vs. residential, non-residential (commercial) vs. non-residential, and utility vs. utility—show serious cost reductions in every sector compared to just one year earlier. And those drops in costs come from pretty much every piece of the equation, from PV modules (solar panels) and inverters to the balance of systems (BOS) and the labor costs.

Overall, solar costs fell almost 20% from the end of 2015 to the end of 2016.

4. Solar’s future is bright.

Source: GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review

A deadline for an important federal tax credit to expire meant a lot of solar squeezed into 2016, even after the tax credit got extended. That, GTM and SEIA predict, will lead to a temporary drop in new utility-scale installations for a bit.

But residential and commercial systems will continue to grow. And utility-scale solar will be back on the rise within a couple of years.

All in all, another great year for solar. And the solar data at this time of the year always offer another reason to love winter, with the promise of more sunshine.

Posted in: Energy

Tags: solar energy

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.