Solar Forges Ahead

By Ross Sherman
Clean Energy Digital Campaigner

With all that happened in 2016, solar isn’t showing many signs of slowing down -- at least not yet. According to recent data from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and GTM Research, solar just had its best overall quarter ever.

Between July and September, the U.S. installed 4,134 megawatts of solar, bringing the total nationwide solar capacity to 35.8 gigawatts. That’s enough solar to power 6.5 million homes, and avoids emitting 880,000 cars worth of pollution every year. A new solar project was installed every 84 seconds during that period, and 39 percent of all new electricity brought online came from solar.

We now have enough solar energy in the U.S. to power 6.5 million homes.

One of the most encouraging signs from the report is the growth of community solar, which saw more capacity installed last quarter than in the entirety of 2015. Community solar programs allow groups of individuals to purchase solar power from a single, central location. These programs often expand access because they allow renters or those living in apartment complexes to purchase clean energy even when they don’t have the ability to install panels themselves. And in most cases, it’s a cheaper option.

There’s no disputing that those numbers are impressive. What’s more, all indications are that the final quarter of 2016 will set new records. However, there are some causes for concern moving forward.

First and foremost, President-elect Donald Trump and many of his cabinet appointments are either skeptical of climate change or outright climate deniers, including Scott Pruitt (appointed to run the EPA), and Rick Perry (Department of Energy). Other cabinet appointees like Ryan Zinke (Department of the Interior) and Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State) have track records promoting dirty energy both here in the U.S. and around the world, respectively. But it might not matter that Donald Trump’s cabinet is more inclined towards fossil fuels, because the public is still overwhelmingly supportive of solar and other forms of clean energy. It will be up to local and state governments to continue to forge ahead with public support from both Democrats and Republicans at their backs.

The second cause for concern is a slight decline in residential solar growth. Although overall solar capacity set records, driven by large, utility-scale projects, residential solar capacity declined by 10 percent from last quarter. Some attribute this blip to localized attacks on solar, most notably in Nevada, where powerful utility interests succeeded in gutting solar incentives and imposing new fees on solar customers.

Large solar installations like the one above have been the main drivers of the solar boom.

Nevada is just one example of a massive behind-the-scenes effort by electric utilities, fossil fuel interests and powerful industry front groups to undermine solar nationwide, which we outlined in a recent report. Fortunately, the majority of these efforts have been unsuccessful, like the recent defeat of a misleading, anti-solar amendment in Florida. But we’re not taking any chances, especially when the wallets of the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry are involved. We’ll be ready to stand up to these powerful anti-solar interests and fight for policies that make solar accessible to more Americans.

Overall, 2016 was a huge year for solar. Let’s make sure we see more of the same in 2017.