Utilities cut the ribbons on several new solar photovoltaic and solar thermal power plants in October. And all 530 megawatts of the country’s new electricity capacity is coming from solar plants, according to a recent report from analytics and research firm SNL Financial.
While 530 megawatts is about equivalent to a single mid-size natural gas power plant, it’s a big number for solar. It also only includes utility-scale solar plants. If residential and commercial rooftop solar arrays were included in the calculations, the numbers would be even higher. Californians alone installed more than 19 megawatts of rooftop solar in October.
SNL estimates that the trend toward solar is likely to continue and grow increasingly aggressive. On top of the many solar power projects completed last month, utilities – even those that have historically relied entirely on fossil fuels – announced plans for new solar power pants.
Solar is becoming increasingly viable and cost competitive with fossil fuel electricity generation. The price of solar modules has dropped more than 70 percent since 2007. As large-scale solar projects have become more common and the economy has improved, it has become easier for solar developers to find favorable loan terms. What's more, solar projects can be assembled and deployed quickly in geographic locations close to power customers, reducing the need for new transmission infrastructure.
About half of the solar plants that came online in October were solar photovoltaic and the other half were solar thermal. Solar thermal technology, which fell out of favor in 2010 and 2011, has surged back into the spotlight as utilities look for clean energy that can carry them through the dark peak hours right after the sun sets. Most solar thermal plants now have provide built-in energy storage.
The fact that no other energy facilities opened in October could simply be a coincidence, according to an article in the Atlantic on the SNL research.
“But it’s a clear sign that solar is no longer a niche play,” the article reads.