Solar energy boom in 2013 is great for consumers and wildlands, report shows

Damian Gadal, Flickr

A new report shows that 2013 was a record-shattering year for solar power, the biggest contender for becoming our nation’s leading clean energy source.

More solar has been installed in the U.S. in the last 18 months than in the 30 years prior, according to the report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Solar energy was also the country’s second-largest source of new electricity generating capacity in 2013, exceeded only by natural gas, according to SEIA.

Photovoltaic (PV) installations continue to boom, increasing 41 percent over 2012.

As the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in America, solar is generating enough clean, reliable and affordable electricity to power more than 2.2 million homes. 

Consumers also benefit from the clean energy boom, as solar installation costs continued to fall throughout the year, ending the year 15 percent below the mark set at the end of 2012.

“Perhaps more important than the numbers,” writes Shayle Kann, Senior Vice President at GTM Research, “2013 offered the U.S. solar market the first real glimpse of its path toward mainstream status. The combination of rapid customer adoption, grassroots support for solar, improved financing terms, and public market successes displayed clear gains for solar in the eyes of both the general population and the investment community.”

Here are some highlights from the report:

  • A new solar project was installed every 4 minutes in 2013.
  • More solar has been installed in the U.S. in the last eighteen months than in the 30 years prior.
  • Solar accounted for 29 percent of all new electricity generation capacity in 2013, up from 10 percent in 2012. This made solar the second-largest source of new generating capacity behind natural gas.
  • In 2013, the top ten solar states (by total cumulative capacity) were:  Calif., Ariz., N.C., Mass., N.J., Hawaii, Ga., Texas, N.Y., Colo. California alone installed more than half of all solar PV in the U.S. in 2013

(Click to enlarge) Infographic: SEIA

GTM Research and SEIA forecast another strong year in 2014 with 26 percent growth in the U.S. solar market. This will bring annual installations up to nearly 6 gigawatts and the cumulative total will be just shy of the twenty gigawatt milestone—an amount once considered inconceivable for solar energy. Just 13 years ago, the total amount of photovoltaics installed was 170 megawatts.

What the solar boom means for wildlands

While the report accounts for utility scale solar on public and private lands, rooftops and commercial areas, The Wilderness Society is most interested in the effects of development on America’s public lands.

We believe that utility scale solar is a crucial component of transitioning our nation away from its dependence on the dirty fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. However, even renewable energy development can leave a lasting footprint on America’s lands. This is why we are working to ensure that when development continues to grow in 2014 and beyond, it occurs in the right places, particularly in the southwest part of our country.

Smart renewable siting

So what makes a place right for renewable energy development? Degraded lands that do not possess important natural values or support crucial wildlife habitat are much more suitable for energy projects than ecologically-intact public lands. These places include solar energy zones, brownfields and areas that have been pre-screened for cultural and environmental resources.

The Department of the Interior has made significant progress developing a solar plan for America’s West, by identifying 19 designated Solar Energy Zones for utility scale projects to be built. But the work isn’t over. More can be done to encourage development in the identified zones and protect important natural and cultural landscapes as we plan for future solar projects.

The Wilderness Society looks forward to continuing its work with local, state and federal groups to find the right places for renewable energy projects and guide development away from our nation’s wildlands and wildlife habitats.