This page contains an overview of the most current data available on solar industry adoption, employment, and technology. It is organized as follows and highlights solar in Texas, in the United States, and globally, while providing links to more detailed information.
What Is a Megawatt (MW) of Solar Power?
For both large systems and small, we tend to use jargon when discussing the capacity of a solar system to generate electricity. Power capacity is most often expressed in watts (W), kilowatts (kW), megawatts (MW), or gigawatts (GW), each a 1,000 times greater than the previous. For convenience, the larger solar facilities are measured in megawatts.
In terms a family can understand, it is instructive to know how many households’ electricity needs can be served by a megawatt of solar power. Several factors influence this number, not the least of which are the severity of the climate and the quality of the solar resource in each state. On average, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) estimates that 164 U.S. households can be supplied by one megawatt.
Solar Adoption and Employment
In Texas: The cumulative installed solar generating capacity reached 1,973 megawatts (MW) by year-end 2017. According to data from the EIA (page 51), 25 percent of the 2,814 GWh of solar energy produced in 2017 came from small-scale distributed generation sites, mostly rooftop solar.
Due to the hot climate, each megawatt of solar serves approximately 115 Texas homes and the state’s total installed capacity serves approximately 226,000 homes. (Texas and U.S. charts provided by SEIA.)
Texas ranks #1 of all states in solar energy potential and #7 in installed solar capacity. There are over 38,220 solar installations in the state, and solar investment has exceeded $3.2 billion! Approximately 576 solar companies call Texas home (106 manufacturers, 245 installers/developers, and 207 others), employing 8,873 workers.
However, an even clearer picture emerges when considering the pace of actual solar energy generation in recent years. Thanks to 712.6 MW of capacity installed in 2017 alone, Texas has moved up the ranks to #5 in solar electricity production growth among states in the last decade, as this No Longer a Novelty article and the table on the right from Greentech Media illustrates.
Texas solar capacity is expected to grow by another 6,409 MW over the next 5 years.
In the United States: In the last decade, solar has experienced an average annual growth rate of 59 percent. The United States has installed solar power capacity of nearly 56 gigawatts (GW), which can power roughly 10,700,000 homes.
There are now more than 1.7 million solar installations in the United States, and solar capacity is anticipated to increase by more than 55 GW in the next five years.
There were 250,271 solar industry workers in 2017, and one study concluded that solar investments generate about three times as many direct and indirect jobs as comparable investments in fossil fuels.
Although the EIA estimates that the share of solar PV electricity generation is still quite low, at just over 1.9 percent of all electricity generated in the United States in 2017, it is rapidly growing at 73,828 GWh, a 43 percent increase from the previous year.
Globally: The total operating solar in the world is now approximately 514 GW through the end of 2018.
New solar deployment exceeded new wind installations in each of the last three years, from 2016 through 2018.
Price Trends by Fuel Type
In his book, Clean Disruption, author Tony Seba tells a story about how in the early 1970s, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels were difficult to purchase due to their scarcity. Used solar panels from NASA were so rare they were going for $90 per watt!
The conventional power industry would have you believe that solar panels still cost that much.
Costs have fallen dramatically since then, with prices in the United States projected to decline further by the end of 2018, in spite of the solar tariffs imposed on imported modules. (Note: U.S. retail prices reflect the added costs incurred in shipping and distribution.)
Several years ago, some power industry “experts” were surprised when Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary MidAmerican Energy invested over $2 billion in solar. Since then, he has added hundreds of megawatts of solar to the portfolio. Does this man know something the experts missed?
Solar energy is affordable today. Solar already costs less than electricity supplied by coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy. And since solar photovoltaics is a technology, not an extraction-based energy source like coal or oil, the gap is only increasing.
There is minimal financial downside or risk in a solar investment. Both small- and large-scale solar systems extract free energy from the sun and have few or no moving parts, very low maintenance, and a 25 to 30+ year operational life.
These attributes make it increasingly difficult for non-renewable forms of energy to compete. New renewable energy projects continue to beat fossil fuels on economics, at a faster pace and in more locations than ever before.
Plant Additions by Fuel Type
Electricity consumption in the United States has been flat for several years. In fact, energy sales in 2017 were roughly the same as a decade ago.
Nonetheless, each quarter, the industry invests billions into building new power plants. Much of this new capacity is required to replace older, less efficient plants that are no longer competitive (see next section below).
However, the renewable energy phenomenon has upset the time honored practice of replacing one large, centralized, fossil-fuel plant with another. Investments in renewable technologies, both distributed and utility-scale, often outpace those in fossil fuel development. Renewables are increasingly becoming the new normal.
Individual utility customers are inadvertently disrupting the utility sector by becoming prosumers (producers and consumers), reversing the flow of energy by making smart economic decisions that completely change how utilities and regulators plan for the electricity system.
Coal Plant Retirements
The energy mix in the United States is constantly in flux. New investments in modern power plants occur regularly, while older, uncompetitive plants are retired.
Much of this retired capacity is concentrated in fossil-fuel and nuclear plants. However, utilities have retired more capacity from coal than any other fuel in recent years.
According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), U.S. coal-fired power plant closures are on pace this year to set a record at 15.4 GW. At least 36.7 GW of coal-fired capacity will be retired from 2018 through 2024 — 117 units in total. These are closures that have already been announced; more are known to be under review.
There have been calls to supersede the market and rescue these obsolete facilities with funds collected from each of our utility bills. Although these controversial proposals remain under study, market forces that favor the lowest cost energy will ultimately prevail.
Societal Benefits of Solar (and Wind) Energy
While renewable energy can lead to lower electricity costs and utility bills, these clean energy sources offer a host of societal benefits beyond pure dollars and cents. Renewable energy creates no local air pollution and improves public health. It fights climate change and water scarcity. It creates well-paying jobs and promotes both national and individual energy independence.
Taxes and royalties collected from renewable energy projects have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into rural, often poor communities and school districts. Obtaining electricity from widespread and compact distributed renewable energy sources makes the power grid more resilient and stable. It also reduces the impact of a physical or cyber attack on large, centralized generating stations that could imperil the grid.
Texas is #1 in the amount of solar energy potential that can ultimately be tapped, and as the leading state in installed wind energy capacity, with more than the next three states combined, we are realizing a clean energy future.
We can all have a healthy conversation about our differences over policy and direction, but our state is steadily transitioning to a clean energy economy, not because of legislative mandates, but based on the inevitable power of economics and common sense.
Photovoltaic (PV) materials and devices convert sunlight into electrical energy. The solar cell is the device that makes this magic happen. Sixty or more solar cells are assembled together to create a forty-pound solar panel (or module), and these panels are used to construct a solar array of the desired size.
A variety of semiconductor materials are used to make solar cells, but the traditional, first generation cells are still the most common. Traditional solar cells are made from silicon, and generally are the most efficient.
Second-generation solar cells are called thin-film cells because they are made from a thin layer of amorphous silicon or non-silicon materials such as cadmium telluride. Third-generation solar cells are being made from a variety of new materials besides silicon, including solar inks, solar dyes, and conductive plastics.
Since almost 90 percent of the world’s photovoltaics are based on some variation of silicon, and about 95 percent of all shipments by manufacturers to the residential sector are crystalline silicon solar panels, this mature, tried-and-true technology continues to dominate the market.
Crystalline silicon forms the basis of both monocrystalline (mono) and polycrystalline (poly or multi) solar panels. What do these terms mean, and which of these two technologies is best? As with most things in life, it depends. To find out for yourself, consider investing about ten minutes of your time to perform this internet search.
When making a solar decision for your home and selecting a solar installer, check out this handy resource from SEIA to help you through the process.