Solar power hits new U.S. heights: utility use exceeds home panels


Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

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No matter how you measure it, 2016 was a major year for solar energy.

More solar-generating capacity was added last year than either natural gas or wind, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

A study by investment bank and research firm Lazard found that utility-scale solar has now become the single cheapest form of unsubsidized electricity in the U.S.

DON'T MISS: When lauding renewables, look at utilization, not just capacity

But wait, there's more.

For the first time ever, solar ranked as the number-one source of new electric-generating capacity in the U.S. on an annual basis.

Last year, the U.S. solar market nearly doubled its annual record, adding 14,625 megawatts of new photovoltaic-solar capacity, according to Greentech Media.

U.S. electricity-generation capacity [via GTM Research and SEIA]

U.S. electricity-generation capacity [via GTM Research and SEIA]

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The total installed capacity for 2016 marked a 95-percent increase over the previous record of 7,493 Mw, reached in 2015.

All told, solar accounted for 39 percent of all new generating capacity installed in 2016, according to Greentech, citing data from the GTM Research and Solar Energy Industries Association U.S. Solar Market Insight report.

The 2016 growth was notable because utility-scale installations surpassed residential solar installations for the first time since 2011.

CHECK OUT: More solar energy was added in 2016 than natural gas or wind

Newly-installed 2016 residential solar capacity stood at 2,583 Mw, which still represented a 19-percent year-over-year increase, according to the report.

But utility-scale solar represented the the largest share of new capacity installed, and also had the highest growth rate of any segment, increasing 145 percent compared to 2015.

The utility-solar growth spurt was due in large part to a buildup of projects waiting for a decision on the fate of a federal tax credit.

U.S. solar PV installations 2010-16 [via GTM Research and SEIA]

U.S. solar PV installations 2010-16 [via GTM Research and SEIA]

Enlarge Photo

The U.S. is now home to more than 1.3 million photovoltaic solar installations, with over 40 gigawatts of total capacity, according to the report.

Yet as always, installed capacity only tells part of the story.

While the U.S. may be installing record amounts of solar-generating capacity, it's important to look at how much electricity those installations actually generate.

Because while a certain amount of generating capacity may be available, it may not all be utilized.

It's also necessary to look at which sources of electricity are retired over time, and which new ones come online.

That context is vital to understanding the true impact of renewable energy on U.S. electricity generation, and whether it is truly displacing carbon-emitting sources or not.

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