U.S. Solar Market to Double in the Next Year

By Kevin Bullis in Technology Review, February 8 2010

In a few years, the United States is likely to be the world's largest market for solar power, eclipsing Germany, which has taken the lead as a result of strong government incentives in spite of the relative paucity of sunlight in that country. A number of factors could make growth possible in the United States--especially changes in legislation that give utilities incentives to create large solar farms.

Last year, the U.S. solar industry got off to a slow start, but sales rebounded in the second half of the year, largely because of a drop in the prices of solar panels of up to 40 percent, partly caused by an oversupply due to the recession. Revenues for many solar companies were likely flat, but the megawatts of solar installed in the United States overall grew by 25 to 40 percent last year, says Roger Efird, the chairman of the Solar Energy Industry Association and the managing director of Suntech America, a branch of Suntech Power, the largest maker of crystalline silicon solar panels in the world.

This year, Efird says, solar installations could double, reaching a gigawatt of capacity. "That's a big number," he says. "If you are in the solar business, you were talking watts 15 years ago, you were talking kilowatts 10 years ago, and you have trouble even talking megawatts today."

The growth had several likely causes, including decreasing prices for solar panels and installation costs, as well as increasing state incentives, which can make solar far more attractive. According to Harry Fleming, the CEO of Acro Energy Technologies in Oakdale, CA, these changes mean that the cost of a typical five-kilowatt rooftop solar system has dropped from $22,000 after state incentives are applied ($40,000 without them) to $16,000 in the last 18 months. Prices are expected to fall to $13,000 by the end of the year ($25,000 without incentives). "This is going to make solar a middle-class product," he says.

At the same time, it seems likely that projects funded through the federal stimulus package will get underway this year. The U.S. General Services Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense, for example, are both ready to start solar projects, Efird says. "A big kick for us in 2010 will be these stimulus funds we've been waiting for," he says.

Another key could be solar projects undertaken by utilities. Efird says that a small change in the tax code has allowed utilities to take a tax credit for solar investment. After that, "we began to see, really for the first time, utilities starting to get interested in solar as a way of generating wholesale electricity that they could then resell." His company has done demonstration projects in the past, he says, "but we've never looked at the utility sector and said that's a market in itself." About a third of the new installations next year could come from utilities.

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