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US Joins 10-GW Solar PV Club, Prepares For Liftoff

The U.S. now has more than 10 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar PV capacity, joining Germany, Italy, and China — and it's just getting warmed up, according to new calculations from NPD SolarBuzz. And watch for the next 10-GW Club member that's fast approaching.

Solar PV installations in the U.S. totaled 1.8 GW through the first six months of 2013. That isn't quite at the midpoint of SolarBuzz's forecasted 4.3 GW for the entire year, but that's still the expectation because the majority of the U.S. solar market should be realized in the second half of the year, much like we saw in 2012, plus there's a crop of large-scale solar projects coming online, noted senior analyst Michael Barker. In fact he thinks there could be about half a gigawatt of upside to that 4.3 GW depending the timing of some projects that might come in earlier than anticipated. 

(Recent data from SEIA and GTM Research ballparked about 8.5 GW of cumulative installed solar electric capacity in March of this year, with a full-year prediction of 4-5 GW in new installations, which similarly lined up for a 10-GW crossover right around now.)

With the 10-GW milestone in hand, the U.S. solar PV market isn't looking back. SolarBuzz expects the market to hit 17 GW by the end of 2014, representing 80 percent growth over 18 months.

Regional distribution of the U.S.' 10 GW of installed solar PV. (Credit: SolarBuzz)

Compared with most other countries' more centralized and nationalized solar energy support schemes, the U.S. solar market is more accurately defined, according to Barker, as a collection of "50 state-based markets with a layer of federal policy." And so credit solar incentive programs among the most solar-friendly states in the far-West and Mid-Atlantic regions, though Southwest and Southeast regions are increasing their contributions as well. And a comparative lack of ongoing solar development in the Great Plains and Great Lakes is really just "further market upside going forward," noted SolarBuzz analyst Chris Sunsong.

Besides individual state support schemes, what's driving the U.S. solar market? From one perspective, U.S. residential solar demand continues to surge, and third-party-owned solar residential in particular. System pricing declines also are playing a major role, especially driving the utility segment. SEIA/GTM numbers for 1Q13 showed system price-points for utility-scale solar at $2.14/W and residential systems at $4.93/W; SolarBuzz ballparks residential solar PV at around $4.25/W and large utility-scale PV projects at around $3/W.

Worldwide solar PV demand reached 15 GW through the first six months of this year, roughly a 9 percent increase from a year ago, and cumulative solar PV installations are about 116.5 GW, according to SolarBuzz. In each scenario, more than half (60 percent) comes from four countries: Germany, China, Japan, and the U.S.; in cumulative capacity only Japan is close to them, and Spain and France are distant at around 4.5 GW and 4 GW respectively. In the second half of this year, China and Japan should account for nearly half of the solar PV demand all by themselves. By contrast, in 2H12 Europe made up half of global demand, and three years ago China and Japan contributed less than 10 percent of second-half-annual demand, according to the firm.

Note that Japan, which is having a stellar 2013 for solar PV, is catching up fast behind the U.S. in solar PV capacity and could top 10 GW cumulative in the next couple of months. What's driving the Japanese market these days is the non-residential feed-in tariff, which is helping the utility segment really take off, Barker said. Japan has kept up a good pace of implementing projects "relatively rapidly" but there are signs that the processes are slowing a bit, he noted.

Lead image: Red carpet in desert sands, via Shutterstock

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