A look at the biggest solar stories of 2012

An Alliance Solar installation

A lot happened for solar in 2012, from some of the world’s largest solar plants being built out and connected to the grid to tariffs being imposed on Chinese silicon PV imports. Here are some of the biggest stories from 2012 as we head into 2013.

Perhaps its appropriate to start with the big plants that are starting to come online. Whereas just a year or two ago, any plant larger than 30 megawatts coming online was a big deal, now plants in excess of 100 megawatts are coming online. In fact, the world’s largest operational solar farm is now at 200 megawatts online—and it’s not completed yet. Already 200 megawatts of the 290 megawatts at the Agua Calienete solar farm being built by First Solar in Yuma, County Ariz., and is now the world’s largest single PV farm.

Then again, the biggest story in solar—for the U.S., anyway—may be the imposition of tariffs and fees on Chinese silicon PV modules. The tariffs were imposed in an attempt to fight what the Securities and Exchange Commission and International Trade Commission determined were unfair trade practices from China and Chinese PV manufacturers. However, the tariffs created a rift in the U.S. solar industry between equipment manufacturers and installers, and module manufacturers led by SolarWorld. The installers were worried that the tariffs would make it more expensive to install solar, which could hurt their business. And equipment manufacturers were concerned that China could decide to start making their own PV manufacturing equipment rather than purchase equipment from the U.S. A similar action is now underway in Europe and is being led there by SolarWorld as well.

2012 was also the biggest year for solar in the U.S. yet. By the end of the third quarter of the year 1,992 megawatts of new PV was installed in the U.S. That’s already more than the 1,885 megawatts of PV installed in the U.S. throughout all of 2011, which previously was the biggest year on record. And a report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association anticipated that 3,200 megawatts of PV solar will be installed in 2012 and even more in 2013.

All this comes as solar incentives continue to shrink in the U.S. and internationally. Luckily, there have been a number of innovations in financing models in the U.S. in an attempt to help solar developers gain access to lower cost financing. While many of these models are still being worked out, like creating bonds or securities to support solar projects—which will allow more people to invest in projects—rather than just banks. However, more needs to be done before these mechanisms become commonplace, like federal legislation that could open up such funding mechanisms.

Another big story in solar for 2012 was the continual oversupply in the PV module market. The oversupply has continued to drive down PV prices, and has forced many companies out of business or to re-evaluate their manufacturing strategies. For instance, the lowered prices and other issues forced Colorado’s Abound Solar into bankruptcy and General Electric to abandon its plan to build a giant new manufacturing facility for thin-film PV—also in Colorado. The oversupply issue, while bad for PV manufacturers, has benefitted installers and customers by lowering PV prices.

This also means that solar is coming into parity in more of the world. For instance, in 2012 solar reached parity with other energy sources in Brazil and is expected to reach parity in other markets, like Hawaii and California in 2015. At that point solar should gain more traction and be considered alongside any other energy source as a viable choice for new power in such markets.

In all, it was a good year for the expansion of solar power even though it was challenging for manufacturers. But increased demand and an expected, eventual return to a stable market should help solar move forward in 2013 and beyond.