Solar Energy’s Latest Record Breaker: 5 Takeaways

The US solar results for 2021 are out, and full of good news. At a time when energy and climate change are on our minds even more than usual, here are five takeaways worth holding onto.

1. 2021 was the biggest year ever for solar

Solar had a banner year. According to the latest from analysts at Wood Mackenzie (WoodMac) and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the US solar industry installed 23.6 gigawatts (GW, or million kilowatts) in 2021. That’s 19 percent more than in 2020, which itself had been a record breaker, and 77 percent more than in 2019. And it took solar soaring past the 100 GW cumulative mark in 2021.

Last year solar was the biggest source of new US electric generating capacity, accounting for 46 percent, according to WoodMac/SEIA. That makes the third year in a row that solar was number one.

2. Solar made serious progress across the board

Solar didn’t just shine overall: It sparkled across the different sectors, according to WoodMac/SEIA:

  • Residential — Solar on homes set its own record, with 4.2 GW installed in 2021 — 30 percent more than in 2020. The number of systems installed was another record: more than 500,000 installations in one year. And, they report, “[n]early 5% of [solar] viable owner-occupied homes in the US have residential solar installed.”
  • Non-residential — Commercial solar and community/shared solar combined were up, too. Commercial solar was basically flat (down 1 percent) from 2020, but community solar (up 7 percent) made up for that. Combined, they grew 2 percent.
  • Large-scale — Another big leaper: Large (“utility”) solar grew by a fifth from 2020. Its 17 GW accounted for more than 70 percent of 2021’s total.

3. More solar = more solar generation

Last year also showed the fruits of the prior year’s labors. The year-end results from the US Energy Information Administration show that solar generated 25 percent more in 2021 than in 2020. In fact, solar accounted for 3.9 percent of US electricity generation, more than four times its 2015 share.

Solar’s steady climb. (Source: UCS analysis of US Energy Information Administration data.)

4. Solar is popular across the country

This past year was noteworthy too because of which states — both blue and red — ended up on the leaderboard for megawatts installed during the year, according to WoodMac/SEIA.

Texas took away the top spot from perennial leader California, for example. That wasn’t because the Golden State slipped (it installed about the same as it had in 2020 and 2019), but because the Lone Star State surged: Texas installed 77 percent more solar in 2021 than it had in 2020, and more than four times as much as it had in 2019. Texas solar had been a long time in coming, and 2021 showed that it’s now here.

Other notable movements of late: Virginia leapt from 19th in 2019 to 4th in 2020 and 2021, installing 11 times as much last year as in 2019. Indiana took 6th in 2021, up from 32nd in 2020. Illinois made it into the top 10, up from 21st in 2019.

5. We need to keep the momentum growing

Solar has a lot of momentum, and 2021 was a year to celebrate. Still, there definitely are factors pushing in the opposite direction.

Costs, for one, which (unsurprisingly, given global supply-demand issues) were up in 2021, after dropping year after year after year. Uncertainty in state policies, too, as California’s public utility commission contemplated changes to its rooftop solar that have had folks pretty rattled (though the changes are on pause right now), for example, and Florida’s legislature just passed a bill that would dramatically weaken the rooftop solar economics in the Sunshine State.

At the federal level, there’s trade policy — the Trump administration’s solar import taxes still haven’t gone away, and potential new ones are causing real concerns — and there’s Congress, with a whole lot hinging on them finding a way forward on extending the investment tax credit (ITC) that has been so powerful for driving solar forward.

Annual installations. Let’s take the high road. WoodMac estimates that the extension would increase solar capacity by 66 percent versus the no-extension “base case” over the next decade.

More solar records to come

So, a bit to fear, but plenty to cheer. It’s worth celebrating solar’s progress, and important to recognize that the fundamentals remain strong in solar’s favor. The trends toward greater efficiency, larger panels, larger projects, and greater economies of scale across the industry all point to lower costs and greater accessibility. Solar is the most popular energy source out there, and likely to be a big piece of how we get off carbon in the power sector. And we know we need it, now more than ever.

Meanwhile, solar is going to keep breaking records. With other renewables in California, for example: at one point on April 3 they reached an all-time high of supplying 97.6 percent of the state’s electricity. And there’s a whole lot more on its way (just as soon as we get the electric transmission pieces figured out).

Stay tuned.

PART OF A SERIES ON Clean Energy Momentum

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Originally published by Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation. By John Rogers


 


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