On April 25, 1954 in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, technicians at AT&T’s legendary Bell Labs publicly demonstrated a solar photovoltaic panel for the first time, capturing light to power the rotation of a miniature Ferris wheel. The New York Times called it “the beginning of a new era, eventually leading to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams.”
Well, “eventually” took a while, in no small part because of the estimated cost of that first PV panel: $286 per watt. Which meant that the average homeowner in 1954, if a rooftop solar array were available, could have installed one for a cool $1.43 million. (A 1954 Cadillac Eldorado, for comparison, cost less than $5,000). But without recounting 60 years of challenges and setbacks, let’s jump ahead to where solar energy deployment, by almost any measure, is today. It’s booming.
Propelled by the 80 percent drop in module prices in the past five years, and even more so by finance innovations like leasing and power-purchase agreements, residential and commercial solar installations are by far the hottest sector in clean-energy generation. Statistical evidence abounds, but here are a few of my favorite facts and figures:
As Clean Edge noted in our recent Clean Energy Trends 2014 report, in 2013 the world installed more new gigawatts of solar PV (36.5 GW) than wind power (35.5 GW) for the first time.
- More Americans (143,000 in 2013) work in the solar industry than the coal industry. In Texas, there are more solar workers than ranchers, and in California, more solar employees than actors.
- Warren Buffett has invested an estimated $7 billion in solar generation facilities.
- More than 60 percent of U.S. homeowners say they’re interested in installing solar, and 73 percent say they would welcome clean energy provided by an entity other than their utility, according to the Solar City-Clean Edge poll released in March.
- Earlier this month, First Solar’s Agua Caliente plant in Yuma, Arizona became the world’s largest PV generation facility with capacity of 290 MW.
- Solar accounted for 28.7 percent of new U.S. generation capacity in 2013, trailing only natural gas (46 percent) among energy sources. “Solar is now sitting at the big kids’ table,” says GTM Research senior VP of research Shayle Kann.
As is well known, the solar boom in the U.S. (with a few exceptions) is not a manufacturing success story. It’s focused on the “downstream” sector of deployment and installation. But this sector has proven to be a rich source of innovation and startup energy in many diverse aspects of the solar value chain. Many of today’s best entrepreneurial minds are working to make solar ever more accessible, focusing on new financing options and reducing soft costs like permitting and customer acquisition.
This is on full display at an Oakland, Calif.-based incubator/accelerator with the phonetically challenging name of SfunCube. Founded by Sungevity co-founder Danny Kennedy and Emily Kirsch, a former principal in Van Jones’s Green-Collar Jobs Campaign, SfunCube is an acronym for “solar for universal need.” SfunCube claims to be the world’s only incubator exclusively devoted to solar companies; its first and largest member (you might say anchor tenant) is Mosaic, the solar financing pioneer that has amassed more than $5.5 million in crowdfunding of distributed solar projects.
The golden age of solar faces many hurdles ahead, of course. The looming expiration of the 30 percent federal investment tax credit (ITC) for solar in 2016 could be a setback, although PV financing options should be even more creative and mainstream by then and the impact may not be as great as some fear. But that’s not to say that solar shouldn’t continue to receive some federal support as the nation shifts toward climate-friendly energy options.