Rooftop, Solar, Utility Scale

US Solar Production Is Being Vastly Underreported

Good news abounds in the solar energy industry. Recently, California became the first state to source more than five percent of its electricity from solar power. But according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and kWh Analytics, U.S. solar is actually producing 50 percent more electricity than has been reported.

The collaborative analysis between SEIA and kWh Analytics came together following the release of a report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). In that report, the EIA announced that renewables had achieved their largest share of the overall U.S. energy mix since the 1930s. It also stated that solar production had generated 20.2 million megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity for the year prior. There’s just one problem with that 20.2 million MWh figure: It was based only on production generated by utility-scale solar plants.

The actual number, according to SEIA and kWh Analytics, was 30.4 million MWh. Where is the difference coming from? Behind-the-meter systems, such as residential and non-residential rooftop solar PV installations, of which there are close to 700,000 throughout the U.S. The EIA included none of those in its report, counting only utility-scale solar plants with capacity greater than 1,000 kilowatts (kW).

Jason Kaminsky, vice president of partnerships with kWh Analytics, said, “The EIA results are a consequence of the way the power industry used to be structured: central power plants. Their process was never intended to track hundreds of thousands of behind-the-meter systems.”

To arrive at the significantly higher 30.4 million MWh estimate, Kaminsky and his associates pulled information from kWh Analytics’ internal database, which is comprised of over 40,000 mostly behind-the-meter systems in all of the major U.S. solar markets. They then added their findings to the EIA’s estimates.

“We saw an opportunity to combine our industry production data with other capacity-level data to conclude that the EIA is majorly understating a key statistic,” Kaminsky said.

The adjusted figures, which are a full 50 percent greater than reported, are game changing. They indicate that there is now enough solar electricity being produced in the U.S. to meet the combined annual demands of Alaska, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Vermont. It also means that aggregated domestic solar generation is greater than the total consumption of 16 states, plus D.C. Additionally, two other states besides California — Arizona and Hawaii — have now broken the five percent solar productivity mark.

SEIA and kWh Analytics stress that underreporting of domestic solar production could have negative repercussions. Figures reported by the EIA are often referred to by policymakers making decisions on important solar policies, such as the Investment Tax Credit (ITC).

“As the official U.S. agency for energy data, their results get used in all sorts of other government analyses,” Kaminsky said.

Plans are underway by SEIA and kWh Analytics to perform regular analyses to assist the EIA in arriving at more accurate U.S. solar assessments. “We see the opportunity to use industry data to help support the EIA and others in filling gaps in their methodologies, and look forward to finding ways to support their processes,” Kaminsky said.

Lead image: Solar panels. Credit: Shutterstock.