Lessons and Blessings: Solar Year in Review
Alex "Solar Girl" Steele
We aren’t the first to say it, and we certainly won’t be the last: 2020 wasn’t a great year. From forest fires, to murder hornets, to a deadly pandemic and polarizing election season, it’s safe to assume that everyone is happy to leave 2020 behind. It’s not all bad, however. For those of us in the solar industry, there are a number of silver linings that have us optimistic for the future. If this year forced you to reevaluate your career path, it might be an excellent time to consider transitioning into clean energy! Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and review the breakthroughs and learning experiences of the solar industry over the past year.
By far, the sector that fared the best this year was utility-scale solar. After a low point in the beginning of the pandemic that was exacerbated by a slowdown in the supply chain, utility-scale solar picked up the pace halfway through the year and finished strong. In fact, by July 2020, the United States had already installed 6 GW of utility-scale solar, which is 4 GW ahead of our capacity in July of 2019! Additionally, Wood Mackenzie, one of the global leaders in energy research and consultancy, projects that the largest types of solar projects (those larger than 120 MW), will almost triple in the number of installs completed between 2019 and 2021 - from 11 completed in 2019 to a whopping 32 in 2021! They also estimate that by 2024, the United States will have over 85 GW of utility-scale solar projects in the pipeline.
The landscape of solar opportunities is shifting, as well. Up until this year, states like California and Hawaii have been considered the prime spots for solar - tons of sun exposure, liberal laws and a strong environmentalist culture were some of the reasons why these states were favorites for the industry. However, some surprising changes are bringing an unlikely contender to the top. Texas is projected to become the next solar capital of the United States! Despite Texas having no state renewable portfolio standard, their climate, land availability, and deregulated energy market makes them a perfect candidate for the next big solar boom. The Lone Star state offers such a lucrative opportunity for clean power development because even though there is no state legislated RPS, two of the biggest utility companies serving Texas residents have aggressive renewable standards set. CPS Energy and Austin Energy are leading the pack with lofty solar goals, blazing the trail to develop a burgeoning clean energy industry in this longtime big oil holdout. Armed with a healthy appetite for power development, Texas is set to become second only to California by 2025 with an impressive 14.5 GW of solar in their repertoire!
We can see the future for utility-scale solar is bright, but there are still some hurdles to overcome on the way there. President Trump re-imposed the tariff on imported bifacial solar panels this past November, adding them back into the group of crystalline silicon solar products that were facing a hefty 20% tariff since 2018. This impacts the price of solar across the entire country - in most nations, a monofacial PV module can be procured for as little as $0.23/W, but in the United States they start at $0.35/W. Just a few cents per watt may seem small, but it adds up and makes for a less competitive industry as a whole. That tariff is scheduled to drop by 18% in February 2021, but some top industry officials, such as the CEO of Solar Energy International Association, are planning to ask President-Elect Biden to waive them earlier. However, Biden has not indicated that he will give the solar industry any preferential treatment, and stated that he plans to “develop a coherent strategy” with our allies across Asia and Europe before deciding on the best course of action for Chinese import tariffs. It seems like we need to prepare for tariffs to stick around for a while, and not expect our next President to go easy on Chinese manufacturers just because he’s more partial to environmentalism!
One of the most exciting developments for the future of the solar industry is the proliferation of solar + storage. Energy storage technology has been advancing in leaps and bounds over the past few years, and we’re at a point where utility-scale solar can harness it to greatly enhance reliability and increase access to renewables for the public, lowering prices along the way. In addition, it’s becoming easier to retrofit storage onto existing residential solar, and the way we sell at the residential level is evolving! Door-to-door marketing, in-home presentations, and forming close personal relationships have always been cornerstones of residential solar sales, but now more than ever people are looking for distance options. As such, remote sales via video conference have rocketed in popularity. There is no question that the pandemic shifted the way people do business, but it also shaped how customers think about what they consume. People clearly understand that they need to make their homes more resilient, against both economic and climate-related calamities. The COVID crisis forced a majority of Americans into their homes for disproportionate spans of time; working, learning, eating, exercising, socializing from our own abodes 24/7 has been an adjustment for everyone. This has been a struggle for many families, but it has also encouraged people to start taking their energy consumption more seriously, looking at options for how they can minimize costs while reinforcing their homes against potential outages or unnecessary expenses. So, not only are homeowners on the lookout for resources to shrink their carbon footprint, save money, and securely backup their critical electricity loads - they are also looking to buy solar in new ways.
As we prepare to bid 2020 adieu, we have a promising new year to look forward to. With clean energy development ramping up across the country, we are confident that the solar industry will continue to scale sustainably. Despite the trials and tribulations that virtually every American has endured over the last 12 months, new doors are opening, and with them opportunities to be part of a movement that will impact our world positively. Whether you are a homeowner looking to make your place more resilient against economic and environmental uncertainty, a working person seeking a new vocation, or just a supporter who stays up to date on clean tech news, we recommend you keep your eyes and ears open for the next year of solar progress!