US solar market moving in from the coasts

SEPA solar per watt rankingThe U.S.’s largest solar market had been the eastern region led by the juggernaut of California, but increasingly the eastern region has been growing and now even the central region of the U.S. is growing. That’s according to the Solar Electric Power Association’s “2011 Utility Solar Rankings” authors Becky Campbell, research manager, and Mike Taylor, director of research, both of SEPA.

The two discussed the results of the fifth annual SEPA survey and how the landscape for utility-integrated solar power is changing during a Webcast on June 21. While they found that in terms of newly added megawatts the western and eastern regions dominated. With utilities like California’s Pacific Gas & Electric integrating 287.7 megawatts of new solar and New Jersey’s Public Service Electric & Gas Co. integrating 181.3 new megawatts of solar, and more coming throughout both regions, they’re likely remain in the top 10. But for the first time, in terms of watts per customer, a central region utility, Fayetteville Public Utilities in Tennessee, made the list. It was ranked among the top 10 with 147.6 watts of solar per customer. 

It’s a shift from what the report had shown in the past. “In 2008…the markets were mostly located in the western region of the country,” Campbell said. “Now you can see in 2011 that the eastern side of the country is really starting to pick up a significant share of the solar market. And the central region is showing some really great growth as well. We're looking forward to seeing how the share starts to change or continues to change over time.” 

In bigger terms the report found that with 1,500 megawatts and 62,500 solar systems installed across the U.S. in 2011, solar is the fastest growing electric source in the U.S. “when we checked into the EIA [i.e., Energy Information Administration] data, EIA anticipated that in all of 2011 there were only 350 non-solar power plants that were greater than 1 megawatt. It's not an apples to apples comparison, but you can see that it’s very different from a centralized generation model,” Taylor said. “Just over 61,000 were net-metered, 89 percent of that was residential.”

It hasn’t been a problem so far, but could be in the future. “Some utilities are installing or integrating over 1,000 PV systems a month,” Taylor said. “Over the next 5 to 10 years that growth will trickle out to more and more utilities.” How the grid will accommodate that development, specifically with smaller systems remains to be seen.