The sun has long captivated humanity, from those who worshipped it in ancient times to others who work to harness it today. For more than 4.5 billion years, the burning ball of hydrogen has radiated more energy than we can comprehend. Every 40 minutes, the amount of solar energy that falls on the earth’s surface is equal to the total annual energy consumption of all human activities. In other words, 27 years’ worth of worldwide energy consumption equals only one day’s worth of solar energy hitting the earth.
Despite what some pundits would have you think, solar energy is no longer an exotic, experimental power source. Solar has become a primary source of new electric generation capacity in the United States — some 53 percent of new electric generating capacity in the first half of 2014 came from solar. With new sources of capital being unlocked, design and engineering innovations reducing system prices, and sales channels rapidly diversifying, the solar market is expected to drive significant growth for the next few years.
The United States’ solar market hit a major milestone in the second quarter of this year, with more than half a million homes and businesses now generating solar energy, according to a new report by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
The Q2 2014 U.S. Solar Market Insight Report says the U.S. installed 1,133 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaics (PV) in the second quarter of this year. The residential and commercial segments accounted for nearly half of all solar PV installations in the quarter.
The residential market has seen the most consistent growth of any segment for years, and its momentum shows no signs of slowing down. Across the United States, cumulative PV and concentrating solar power (CSP) operating capacity has surpassed 15.9 gigawatts (GW), enough to power more than 3.2 million homes.
This expansion of solar power also has been a boon to the economy, the report says. Today, the solar industry employs 143,000 Americans and pumps nearly $15 billion a year into the economy. Much of this can be accredited to effective public policies, such as the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), net energy metering (NEM) and renewable portfolio standards (RPS).
The utility PV segment made up 55 percent of U.S. solar installations in the second quarter of 2014, which has accounted for more than half of national PV installations for the fifth straight quarter. In just two years, the utility segment has quadrupled its cumulative size, growing from 1,784 MW in the first half of 2012 to 7,308 MW today.
The report says that for the first time ever, more than 100 MW of residential PV came online without any state incentive. However, growth remains driven primarily by the utility solar PV market, which installed 625 MW in Q2 2014, up from 543 MW in Q2 2013. GTM Research and SEIA forecast 6.5 GW of PV will be installed in the United States by the end of this year, up 36 percent over 2013.
Renewables, including solar and wind, have the potential for wide-scale economic revitalization — that is, if we implement the right policies and frameworks. In June, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released a report that analyzed the circumstances under which renewable energy can boost economies and benefit communities by studying the effects of solar and wind energy on the environment, economy and society. It found that the large-scale deployment of renewable energy can create jobs, increase incomes, improve trade balances and contribute to industrial development.
If you still aren’t convinced about solar’s viability, consider this; all the energy in the earth’s reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas equal just 20 days of energy produced by the sun. It seems crazy that we would continue to cling to such a paltry energy supply, when doing so is creating environmental problems that threaten our very existence. As solar technology improves, we will be able to harness more and more of the sun’s overwhelming energy. It’s up to everyday citizens to put pressure on policymakers to do everything in their power to further push open the door to a renewable energy future.
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