The boom is here: U.S. solar experiences record-smashing year

200,000 people are working in an industry that is revolutionizing the energy sector.

Workers install solar panels in California. CREDIT: AP/Reed Saxon, File
Workers install solar panels in California. CREDIT: AP/Reed Saxon, File

The United States installed a record-smashing 14,762 Megawatts (MW) of solar power in 2016 — a 97 percent jump over 2015, according to data released Thursday. The industry reports that, for the first time ever, solar was the number one source of new generating capacity, beating out wind and gas.

The report, “Solar Market Insight 2016 Year In Review” by Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and GTM Research predicts that “total installed U.S. solar PV capacity is expected to nearly triple over the next 5 years.”

The report is full of amazing charts and factoids about the industry’s growth.

For instance, on average, in 2016 “a new megawatt of solar PV capacity came on-line every 36 minutes” — that’s 40 MW a day. The price for solar PV systems fell nearly 20 percent last year, “the greatest average year-over-year price decline” since the report began tracking such prices. This is on top of the 80 percent price drop that occurred from 2008 to 2015.

The new report comes on the heels of news that more than 200,000 people now work in the U.S. solar industry.

For the first time, new capacity for solar(dark blue) outpaced new capacity for both gas (blue) and wind (green).
For the first time, new capacity for solar(dark blue) outpaced new capacity for both gas (blue) and wind (green).

And it is a major industry milestone that new installed solar capacity topped new capacity from either wind or gas in 2016. Yes, wind and gas generally produce more kilowatt-hours of electricity for every megawatt installed than solar. But solar power provides its electricity during times of expensive peak power usage (daytime and summertime). Therefore, it can displace substantial capacity additions of costly and polluting natural gas “peaking power plants.”

Ultimately, the ongoing price drops in solar — coupled with the equally remarkable price drops in battery storage, and the ever-more-visible impacts of carbon pollution — mean that renewables must inevitably beat fossil fuels even in this country.

But by putting his thumb on the scale against solar, President Trump can certainly slow the transition and ensure other countries reap the biggest benefits. Trump, after all, campaigned on zeroing out clean energy funding, rolling back climate action, boosting coal use.

Bloomberg reported Tuesday that the White House is planning to slash the budget of the Energy Department office that helps develop and advance clean energy. If team Trump also succeeds in revoking the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, that could give a temporary boost to coal and gas domestically.