Right about now, I'm wishing for a sunny spring day in New Jersey, where there are 20 inches of snow between me and my perennial flower beds. So, naturally, I've been thinking a lot of one of the renewable energy technologies that I expect to be covering more closely in 2011, solar.
I've been stashing information about solar-related market developments that came fast and furious as the year drew to a close. Taken separately, these developments are intriguing. Considered together, they point to the strong probability that 2011 will carry much brighter prospects for progress in solar installations across the United States. Here are three of those leading indicators:
- The bipartisan move to extend (for another year) the Department of Treasury Section 1603 program, which provides cash grants for commercial solar installations instead of the 30 percent solar investment tax credit. The extension is seen as much-needed stimulus, since few have been able to take advantage of the credit during the economic downturn.
- A move by the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and the Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to pinpoint six "solar energy zones" in six western states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah) that appear to be "suitable for environmentally sound, utility-scale solar energy production." The study, which is called the Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, could lead to the development of renewable energy projects on public land. The areas in question are administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and the report figures there are about 22 million acres that are appropriate. The department has already "fast-tracked" eight utility-scale solar projects in the past three months and it has developed a fee schedule for those who wish to "rent" public land for their projects.
- 2010 photovoltaic solar installations surpassed those for 2009 ... by the end of the third quarter. So, even the economy wasn't all that supportive, solar projects kept pushing forward. According to the U.S. Solar Market Insight, 3rd Quarter 2010 from the Solar Energy Industries Association, there were 530 megawatts of solar capacity installed in the first three quarters of 2010. That compares with 435 megawatts of capacity for ALL of 2009. Here's the projected total for 2010, according to the report: "Early fourth-quarter data suggests that there will be a late-year surge in installations, resulting in total 2010 demand of 855 megawatts, well above the current pace." The top five markets for solar continue to be Californai, New Jersey, Florida, Arizona and Colorado. Taken together, the association reports that these states account for 74 percent of the nation's solar demand.
There are several other factors that point to solar progress, which have been bubbling up throughout the year. They include:
- Continuing declines in the cost of photovoltaic module production, to less than $1 per watt. My interview with First Solar last summer provides a good recap of what's going on. And in early December, the company said it would double its manufacturing capacity in 2012.
- The push by some technology upstarts to make residential solar cheaper. I am watching Clarian Power, which is hoping to release a sub-$1,000 module in spring 2011, and Armageddon Energy, which is likewise hoping to make solar an easier value proposition for homeowners. (Look for my coverage of Armageddon shortly after the new year.)
Of course, solar isn't appropriate everywhere in the United States. But it represents a chance not only to help us continue reducing our dependence on fuels based on old carbon but to help create some new sorts of career opportunities for those whose jobs have permanently evaporated. Put on your sunglasses, because I'm predicting it will be a bright year for solar.