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Countdown: What Are the Top 10 Solar States in the US?

The Environment America Research & Policy Center has released its annual report ranking the top 10 U.S. states with the most cumulative solar electric capacity installed per-capita. These states are (in alphabetical order) Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and North Carolina.

Far from being a mere assemblage of facts and figures, Lighting the Way: The Top Ten States that Helped Drive America’s Solar Energy Boom in 2013 also provides insightful commentary on the forces driving the U.S. solar market to previously unprecedented levels of success, as well as the challenges faced in coming years. The report also serves as an outline for how that success can continue to be leveraged.

Report Highlights

One of the report’s most illuminating bits of information tells us that 26 percent of the U.S. population (as represented by the aforementioned ten states) supports 87 percent of the country’s total installed solar capacity. According to Rob Sargent, energy program director for Environment America, that’s less a result of physical solar exposure and more a result of having the will to make it work.

“The biggest predictor of success in solar is a commitment from the top, and the implementation of policies to back up that commitment,” Sargent said. “There are some places that rank high because their solar resources are better, and other places where solar fares better in the marketplace because of the high cost of electricity. But on average, solar is succeeding in the places where people want it to succeed, and have acted on that.”

Environment America’s report also shows that solar energy is experiencing a meteoric rise in the United States, brought on by a drop of 60 percent in the cost of installed solar systems since the beginning of 2011. Sargent pointed to programs such as the DOE’s SunShot Initiative, as well as the continuing development of better business models, as some of the primary driving forces. “All of these things are coming together,” Sargent said. “But they wouldn’t have done so if there hadn’t been demand created through solar carve-outs, long-term contract programs and rebates.”

Counting Down the Top 10 Solar States of 2013

The following list represents Environment America’s top ten solar rankings, listed in reverse order by cumulative capacity per resident. The data was provided by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

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Number 10: North Carolina

Between 2012 and 2013, North Carolina grew its per-capita solar capacity by greater than 140 percent as a result of its aggressive pursuit of utility-scale build-outs. Ranking tenth in the cumulative “watts per-capita” category (57 W/person), North Carolina’s aggressive solar growth put it in third place with respect to the total number of megawatts installed in 2013 (328 MW). It also ranked fourth in cumulative solar capacity (557 MW), and fifth in the number of installed watts per-capita during 2013 (33 W/person). While North Carolina was identified as one of the top ten states in the nation for solar industry employment, the report cites weaknesses in the state’s energy policy — like the lack of any Solar Alternative Compliance Payment fines to compel utilities to meet renewable energy quotas — which could impact its future positioning.

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Number 9: Colorado

Colorado is one of a handful of states currently embroiled in a dispute over net metering policies. The state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, is challenging financial incentives offered to owners of rooftop solar arrays (currently 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour produced), claiming injury to their bottom line. Despite ongoing battles, Colorado’s cumulative per-capita capacity of 63 W/person was enough to rank it ninth in the nation in 2013. Per-capita capacity installed during 2013 was 12 W/person, and total capacity installed in 2013 was 61 MW. Its cumulative capacity of 331 MW is enough to position Colorado as the eighth state with the most solar capacity. Colorado is also among the top ten states for solar employment.

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Number 8: Massachusetts

Previously number ten in cumulative per-capita capacity, Massachusetts leapfrogged two spots ahead in 2013 to claim eighth place overall with 66 W/person, thanks in large part to strong public support of renewable energy initiatives. 2013 saw Massachusetts install 244 MW of total capacity (earning it fourth place in that category) and bringing its cumulative capacity to 442 MW (sixth in the nation). Per-capita installation during 2013 was 37 W/person. Massachusetts is also ranked in the top ten states with the highest number of solar industry employment opportunities.

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Number 7: Delaware

The second smallest state, Delaware offers proof that solar leaders don’t necessarily have to be sun-drenched or large in size. Although it was ranked 21st in the country for cumulative solar capacity (53 MW) and 23rd with respect to new capacity installed in 2013 (only 9 MW), the state’s comparatively small population places it firmly in the top ten of per-capita rankings: seventh in cumulative capacity (82 W/person) and tenth in per-capita installations during 2013 (14 W/person).

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Number 6: New Mexico

New Mexico is the only state in the top ten list that doesn’t compensate consumers at or near the full retail rate for excess solar electricity they feed back into the grid. Even with this handicap in place, the state’s abundance of solar resources put it firmly into sixth place with cumulative per-capita capacity of 113 W/person. Per-capita installations in 2013 were 22 W/person, and total capacity installed for the year amounted to 46 MW - bringing the state’s cumulative capacity to 236 MW.

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Number 5: New Jersey

Another state that’s ranked among the top ten best places in the country for solar industry employment, New Jersey’s size and eastern location doesn’t exactly scream “solar.” However, this is further evidence that bigger and brighter doesn’t always equate to better. Part of the state’s robust solar growth can be attributed to having a far more developed renewable energy market in place (e.g. solar carve-outs and SRECs) than others with sunnier climes. New Jersey has also established the goal of obtaining 4.1 percent of its electricity from solar by the year 2028. Cumulative per-capita capacity here reached 136 W/person, with 27 W/person added in 2013. A total of 240 MW of capacity was added in 2013, bringing New Jersey’s cumulative capacity to 1,211 MW (or 1.2 GW).

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Number 4: California

Jumping from sixth place in 2012 to fourth place in 2013, California’s massive cumulative solar capacity of 5661 MW (2760 of which were installed in 2013) dwarfs that of all other states and accounts for more than 40 percent of the nation’s overall capacity - but its significantly higher population skews its per-capita ranking. In 2013, California saw 72 W/person installed, driving its cumulative per-person capacity to 148 watts. As the state closes in on grid parity (which the report indicates could happen by 2017) these figures are all likely to rocket upward, as will continued employment opportunities that have placed it among the top ten states for solar jobs. California nearly doubled its total capacity between 2012 and 2013 and is presently the standard-bearer among all 50 states with respect to the number of large utility-scale solar projects.

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Number 3: Nevada

With Nevada’s bountiful solar resources, it’s one of four states including California, Arizona and Colorado that has the potential to generate over 30 percent of its consumed electricity by rooftop solar panels alone. Despite the fact its cumulative per-capita capacity of 161 W/person places it solidly in the top three, 2013 also saw the state lose footing (it ranked number two overall in last year’s report). A close examination of the details show additional slippage with respect to per-capita and cumulative installed capacity, where only 17 W/person were installed in 2013 compared to 72 W/person in 2012. Likewise, Nevada installed 198 MW of capacity in 2012, but only added 47 MW in 2013 to bring cumulative capacity to 450 MW. This “slowdown” could be attributed to Nevada’s historic adoption of large-scale solar projects, which can have a skewing effect on year-to-year figures.

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Number 2: Hawaii

Overtaking Nevada for the number two spot in 2013 was Hawaii, which now boasts 243 W/person of cumulative capacity. It also ranked number two in the number of per-capita watts installed in 2013 (107). Due to the high cost of electricity in Hawaii, solar energy has now reached grid parity, making it a cheaper alternative even in the absence of government incentives. Strong net metering policies and a feed-in tariff offering 21.8 cents per kilowatt-hour for small-scale residential projects are also continuing to fuel the solar drive in Hawaii, however those policies are now being disputed by local utilities. Adding 150 MW of capacity in 2013, Hawaii now holds a cumulative solar capacity of 341 MW.

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Number 1: Arizona

It might be easy to dismiss Arizona’s repeat first-place ranking as a natural consequence of its freakish abundance of year-round sun, but enormous gains reflected in the total installed capacity and per-capita capacity point to more than just inherent solar prowess — including a history of statewide policies that have to date created a total of 8500 industry jobs. In 2013, Arizona installed 724 MW of capacity, bringing the state’s cumulative capacity to 1821 MW (second only to California). The amount of per-capita installed capacity in 2013 was 109 W/person, besting California and securing Arizona’s top rank as the state with the most cumulative per-capita capacity (275 W/person, which is almost seven times the national average). However, the recent elimination of state tax incentives for businesses installing solar panels and reduced incentives for residential solar customers may impact Arizona’s ability to remain competitive in the solar industry.

“It’s Arizona’s to blow,” Sargent said when asked if it was feasible the sunniest state in the nation could one day fall out of the top ten list of solar energy producers. “The state has an immense resource and many people who understand solar’s benefits. But it just so happens that there are elected regulators in Arizona who perhaps don’t understand it quite as well and may be a little caught up in the polarization of the energy debate.”

Looking Ahead: The Road to 2016

Among some of the key issues that could play into the continued expansion of solar energy in the United States is the looming expiration of the Solar Investment Tax Credit in 2016, which Sargent called “a major factor that needs to be addressed.”

“Solar is growing by leaps and bounds,” Sargent said. “It’s beginning to transform the electric system and has immense potential to reduce pollution while meeting our energy needs. I think the progress we’ve made in all these places should give us the confidence to take it to the next level.”

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