US Solar: 2 Million Systems Strong. And Definitely Growing

May 9, 2019 | 11:29 am
Photo: GRID Alternatives
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

The latest good news from the forefront of clean energy makes me think of the old FlintstonesTM vitamins commercials about the number of kids they were reaching: “[X] million strong, and growing,” went the catchy jingle. This good news is about the count of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in the US, and should be just as catchy: We have just sped past the two-million mark. Two million PV systems, on homes and businesses, over parking lots, beside highways, and in fields and deserts across America.

Gif of numbers

That tally is courtesy of energy market analysis firm Wood Mackenzie (Wood Mac) and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). While large-scale solar accounts for more of the megawatts, rooftops account for the vast majority of the system count; residential systems alone are 96% of the total.

This momentous occasion is one of the clean energy milestones I’ve been watching for. And it’s just one more sign of a key technology that keeps hitting new heights.

Heights upon heights

That heights-hitting is on vivid display, for example, in the latest year-in-review report from the same team of Wood Mac and SEIA. While the 2018 data shows that annual solar installations were down, with US solar companies installing 2% less than they had in 2017, so many of the other data points are good news. Here’s a taste:

  • Solar megawatts are climbing. Even with the annual total down (a smidge), we still added 10,600 megawatts (MW) of PV to our national power mix. That put the total installed solar tally at more than 64,000 MW—enough to generate the equivalent of 12 million typical US households’ use.
  • Solar’s contributions are growing. Solar’s new heights are particularly visible in the technology’s increasing role in our electricity supply. While only 2.4% of US electricity in 2018, solar generation climbed 24% between 2017 and 2018. And its continued climb over the last decade combined with wind energy’s progress is a marvel to behold.
  • Residential solar is up. Installations of large-scale and “non-residential” (commercial) solar were both lower in 2018 than in the previous year, but gains in residential solar made up for almost all of those drops. Residential solar’s growth, says the report, “exceeded expectations for 2018,” with 7% more megawatts going in during the year than in 2017.
  • Solar isn’t just climbing; it’s spreading. The report authors emphasize how the results suggest major states “have moved past early adopters”: “[G]rowth in low-penetration emerging markets, such as Texas and Florida, continues to add to the geographic diversity of the residential market outside of California and the Northeast.” The Lone Star State, long the undisputed leader in wind power, is finally becoming a factor in solar too, capturing the #2 slot for solar megawatts installed in 2018. And the Sunshine State has finally started talking solar seriously, taking the #3 spot in 2017 and #4 in 2018.
  • Solar costs are dropping (even more). One area where less is more is in the continuation of the amazing downward trend for the cost of solar. Costs for the different market segments dropped another 4-15% in 2018. The report authors credit reductions in hardware costs, including the costs of PV modules—with the Trump solar taxes on imports being offset by Chinese policy changes that led to global oversupply.

And more heights

And the heights keep coming. Solar in California, for example, couldn’t even wait for spring to set a new record for instantaneous solar generation, and large-scale solar plus rooftop solar briefly supplied close to two-thirds of the state’s electricity demand. And California solar set another megawatt record last month.

The two million systems now in, given growth already in 2019, add up to a cool 70,000 MW. Wood Mac and SEIA are projecting that solar installations this year will be 14% higher than 2018, with the residential sector continuing to push forward and large-scale solar bouncing back. That progress looks likely to lead to another recordbreaker in annual installations by the year after next.

Meanwhile, the system count will continue to climb, along with the pace of installation. The news on this latest milestone quotes Michelle Davis, a Wood Mac senior solar analyst (and former colleague), as saying:

“According to our latest forecasts, by 2024, there will be on average, one solar installation per minute. That’s up from one installation every 10 minutes in 2010.”

This two-million mark comes just three years after we hit one million PV systems. And Wood Mac/SEIA project that we’ll hit three million in 2021 and four million by 2023.

Readers of the right vintage will recall that the FlintstonesTM vitamin commercials of yesteryear talked about “10 million strong”. Solar isn’t there yet, but at the rate it’s making progress, we’ll be there before we know it.

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.