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Rapid solar energy growth predicted in US: industry

It has taken 40 years for the US to hit 1 million solar energy installations, but it will take only another two years for that figure to double. Meanwhile, the current total solar capacity of 27 GW is expected to triple by 2020.

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In short, officials said Wednesday, solar's future is bright as the sun.

Climate Nexus, a New York-based strategic communications organization that promotes clean energy solutions, hosted an online conference call to mark the major milestone of 1 million solar installations. Solar's benefits were extolled by officials with the Solar Energy Industries Association, Greentech Media and Vote Solar.

"Solar is going through a revolution in the next decade that will have a massive effect on the way we produce and pay for electricity," said Rhone Resch, the president and CEO of SEIA.

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Utility business models that have been around a century are falling away, he said, with solar elbowing its way forcefully into the energy mix. Already, solar produces enough electricity to power a state the size of Pennsylvania, and soon will produce enough for a state the size of California, Resch said.

Solar is "a particularly interesting technology in that it lies at the epicenter of two seismic transitions we're starting to see" in the electricity industry, with de-carbonization at the forefront, according to Shayle Kann, vice president of research for Greentech Media.

Solar "is either the largest new source of renewable generation" in the US "or it's right up there with wind. Last year was the first year we added more new solar to the grid than natural gas," Kann said.

Some of that new solar is coming from utility-sponsored projects, with homeowners installing solar panels on their roofs accounting for much of the remainder. "We came into this decade at less than 100,000 installations. It has grown tenfold since 2010," Kann noted.

Driving much of the growth is Congress' extension of the investment tax credit for renewables, officials said. Beyond that, residential solar is becoming more popular as installation costs continue to drop. In 2015 alone, there were more than 300,000 residential solar installations in the country.

"For a century, we depended on a centalized office and power system," said Adam Browning of advocacy organization Vote Solar. "Today, energy is powered by people. You don't have to wait for the utility to do the right thing."

Some major corporations, such as Wal-Mart and Google, already have committed to a solar future, he added. Still, solar's overall contribution to the nation's energy mix -- still lingers at about 1% and remains a pittance, officials said, but added it is about to soar.

Over the next five years, solar "may be the single largest new source of electricity in the country," Greentech Media's Kann said.

But barriers, both industry and political, remain. Some utilities are attempting to discourage customers from switching to solar through fees and special charges, they said. Also, a majority of states have sued the government over the Environmental Protection Agency's new Clean Power Plan, which would encourage more growth in renewables, including solar, and adversely affect coal-fired generation.

But SEIA's Resch noted that solar's recent rapid expansion has occurred without the CPP, whose implementation was blocked earlier this year by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote.

While he expects the stay of the CPP to be lifted eventually, Resch said solar advocates "never expected the CPP to have a big impact" on demand.

--Bob Matyi, newsdesk@platts.com

--Edited by Valarie Jackson, valarie.jackson@spglobal.com