Amidst an increasingly tough consolidation phase resulting in a number of high-profile company closures, a trade petition that resulted in the U.S. Commerce Department initiating an anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigation on Chinese PV imports and the fact that the highly successful Section 1603 Department of Treasury Program did not get extended last year (though there is still hope that it will this year), lies the fact that America’s fastest growing industry, the solar energy industry, had a stellar year – despite all the hurdles popping up in its path.
Fact is, the movement in America towards solar is growing stronger every day: For the fourth consecutive year, an independent poll by Kelton Research found that approximately 9 out of 10 Americans (89 percent) think it is important for the United States to develop and use solar energy. What is even more spectacular is the fact that support for solar is greatly non-partisan: 80 percent of Republicans, 90 percent of Independents and 94 percent of Democrats are in rare agreement when it comes to the earth’s most powerful and most abundant energy resource and its development. At a time when politics are characterized by a lack of consensus within parties let alone across party lines, this constitutes a rather unprecedented unanimity.
What is even more encouraging is that Americans are also in agreement on the need for federal investment in solar energy and the need for the government to provide incentives for it. Well aware of the fact that traditional and non-renewable energy sources like oil, natural gas, and coal have received billions in government support – and continue to do so, despite the fact that these energy sources have long matured — the great majority of citizens (82% to be exact) feel it is only fair to award solar the same assistance, whether it be in the form of grants or tax credits. If consumers are receiving tax credits for purchasing energy efficient appliances, for example, it seems logical in the public mind to extend the same support when “doing the ultimate deed” and investing in the energy future of the country by installing a photovoltaic or solar thermal system. Translated into party affiliation again, 71% of Republicans concur with the notion of federal support for solar, 82% of the Independents, and 87% of Democrats.
This resounding success for solar stems from the fact that solar won hands down when those surveyed were asked which energy source they would support financially if they’d be in charge of energy policy. Solar is almost twice as popular as the next highest scoring energy source: 39% of Americans see the benefit of financial assistance for solar, followed by a mere 21% for natural gas. Coal and nuclear power are trailing far behind in the single digits (nine and three percent respectively). Especially young and working-age Americans who are hard pressed for jobs as only their grandparents have been before during the great depression, realize that solar’s potential for job creation and economic growth is far greater than that of any other energy resource.
In 2011, the solar industry grew faster than any other job sector in the United States, at a staggering 26% growth rate.
Currently more than 100,000 Americans are employed installing, manufacturing, or selling solar products and this number is expected to grow by another 24% over the course of the next year. The majority of green collar workers are employed by small to mid-size businesses installing solar technology—exactly the kind of businesses that make up the back bone of the American economy and that had to struggle the hardest to survive the recession, oftentimes by having to lay-off experienced and trusted employees. The fact that these businesses can hire again, and have even disclosed to hire 25% more workers in 2012, is a strong sign that economic recovery has a green driver. Also the manufacturing side has plenty of reason to be proud since in 2011 the U.S. was a $2 Billion net exporter of solar products, even only with China. Over the last two years, 27 new manufacturers have begun production in the United States; a multi-billion economic investment and a clear sign of market confidence.
The solar boom is of course aided by the fact that the price for even higher performance and quality engineered technology, be it high-efficiency modules or innovative, time-saving racking systems and many other features, has dropped 30% since early 2010. From $60 per watt in the mid 70s, a watt of produced silicon PV modules has dropped to about $1.50 today. The immense number of PV installations in Q3/2011- 449MW- alone confirms the sunny outlook for solar in the United States: never before has this much solar been installed in any quarter before. Not only a record quarter but also a phenomenal 140% growth over Q3/2010 and more than all installations of 2009 combined.
With prices continually decreasing and demand and efficiency exponentially rising, more and more American consumers are the main beneficiaries. Experts even predict that by 2016 solar PV will outperform the cost of coal as well (roughly 9 cents per kilowatt hour), making it a clean energy choice of superlatives: universally adaptable, cost competitive with traditional, non-renewable resources, as well as extremely fast to install. In 2011, almost 2 GW of solar were permitted and installed in the U.S.; in comparison nuclear power plants with an equal capacity take an average of 13 years to complete. As the global demand for energy continues to rise, the U.S. has one of the best opportunities in the world to position itself as a leader in solar energy. Not only does America possess some of the best solar irradiation on the planet and is therefore excellently suited to harvest the sun, but this country’s motivated workforce along with its talent pool in research and development are second to none.
Finally the sunny outlook for solar in the U.S. is bolstered by the fact that by 2014 the U.S. is expected to become the world’s largest solar market and the technology is likely to be the largest source of new electric capacity in America. As we welcome back the brave and commendable veterans of the Iraqi War, the solar industry’s enormous job growth potential represents a much needed opportunity to integrate the heroes of the American spirit back into our economy. I predict that the solar industry will enhance its workforce with many of these well-trained individuals who are adaptable to change and experienced in working with cutting-edge technology. It will be our testimony that we did not take their service for granted and are grateful for the sacrifices they have made for our country. Going forward American solar businesses will grow and take care of their own, while solar adaptation in the United States lets the rest of the world know that we, too, understand the need to diversify our energy portfolio and are ready to mark our true energy independence in the 21st-century.
Written by Sylvia Minton, Public Policy Chair of the Georgia Solar Energy Association. A long time journalist and communications specialist, the Sr. VP of Corporate Affairs for MAGE SOLAR, a complete solar PV systems & components provider,Syliva is a member of the board of directors of the MAGE SOLAR ACADEMY in Dublin, GA, USA. MAGE SOLAR ACADEMY, located at the corporate campus of MAGE SOLAR USA in Dublin, GA, is a premier educational arena for professionals of all levels and occupations in the expanding PV-market.