U.S. solar installations jumped 95 percent last year

There was more solar capacity added in 2016 than any other type of electricity generation.

CREDIT: AP Photo/J Pat Carter
CREDIT: AP Photo/J Pat Carter

If humanity wants to have any chance of slowing the rapid warming of the climate, people need to stop burning fossil fuels — but no one wants to go without electricity.

That’s why it’s encouraging that U.S. solar installations nearly doubled last year, increasing 95 percent over 2015’s installations, and adding 14,626 megawatts (MW) of photovoltaic electricity generation capacity to the U.S. grid, according to preliminary data from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

All segments — residential, non-residential, and utility-scale — saw growth from 2015 to 2016.

The non-residential sector includes community solar and commercial installations.

The report notes that 22 states added more than 100 MW of solar capacity last year — a new record. Minnesota, Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts were all mentioned as rising solar powerhouses in the report.

The geographical diversity (California, of course, still reigns supreme) of states with installed solar capacity speaks to the importance of state-level policies. Where state leaders have encouraged utilities to transition to clean energy, through renewable portfolio standards, for instance, or where regulators have ensured that homeowners get fair market value for the electricity they supply, solar has boomed.

Another factor that pushed the incredible growth in installations this year was that the solar investment tax credit — a federal policy that offers rebates on solar installation costs — was originally set to expire at the end of 2016. That meant large-scale developers pushed to get projects on line by the end of the year. The ITC was extended late in 2015, but many projects timelines were already set.

According to the industry data and data from the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA), solar accounted for more added capacity than any other fuel source in 2016 — including natural gas. Nearly 40 percent of all capacity added to the grid came from solar.

Of course, that’s just new capacity. Overall, the country is still overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuel power generation, including from coal and natural gas. Coal is being slowly displaced, with no new coal plants going online since 2008 (although a so-called clean coal plant in Kemper, Mississippi has been nearing completion and is expected to go online this year).

In 2015, coal and natural gas each accounted for about a third of electricity generation.

The solar installation news comes on the heels of a report from another industry non-profit, the Solar Foundation, which announced last week that jobs in the solar industry are also at record highs, with more than 260,000 people working in solar. Some 50,000 people were hired by solar companies last year, mostly in installation jobs.