Solar Energy Made Big Gains in 2010

The year 2010 was a rough one for a lot of industries, but not for solar energy.

The fact that 2010 saw slow economic recovery, high unemployment and halting growth across the board makes the solar industry’s growth look behemoth. But the truth is, it would have seemed big, strong and well nourished even if not pictured next to the rest of the country’s wilted economy.

The industry has seen major developments this year, including improving technology, falling prices, growing public interest, government support, and tremendous industry growth.

“We have the largest number of projects in the pipeline we’ve ever seen,” said Monique Hanis, spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

It’s been a big year and we have another good one to look forward to with industry experts estimating solar installations will double in 2011.

Industry Growth
Growth in the solar industry is newsworthy within itself this year just because it’s been so tremendous.

“Despite the slow recovery in the economy in general, the solar industry grew,” Hanis said. “The fastest growing area is photovoltaic. PV saw more than 100 percent growth. They’ve slightly more than doubled their business.”

Much of that growth came in the form of big utility-scale projects. There are currently more than 23 gigawatts of solar power in the pipeline after several major projects were approved, Hanis said.

Much of the growth has also come in the residential sector. As states and utility companies increasingly offer incentives to homeowners for installing renewable energy projects at home and as people have become more aware and accepting of solar as a reliable energy source, individuals have started investing in it.

Job growth
With that industry growth has come job growth.

“We had the first-ever solar jobs census this year,” Hanis said. “There are more than 93,000 workers in the solar industry.”

Every press release or news announcement about a new solar project came with a sentence about how many jobs the project would create.

More than half of the country’s solar companies saw major growth this year, Hanis said. And the number of employees at those companies grew by 26 percent.

That’s especially newsworthy given that the unemployment rate stayed high throughout the year and there were significant new jobless claims every month in 2010.

In fact, so many new green jobs are being created that there is some concern there won’t be enough skilled people to fill them.

“From a U.S. perspective, we have a lot of work to do to train our workforce for these new green collar jobs,” said Brian Douglas, director of business development for the Association of energy engineers, which is working to train solar energy workers.

Government Support
Much of this industry growth is thanks to big support from the government in the form of tax rebates and incentives and new state regulations requiring renewable energy portfolios. All of that combined with big legislation that opened public land to fast tracking for solar energy projects has created a hospitable environment for major solar development.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar worked closely with he Bureau of Land Management and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to create a fast-track program for solar projects on public lands that led to nine big projects being approved before the end of the year, Hanis said.

“That’s probably the biggest news of the year in the solar industry,” Hanis said. The U.S. government has approved more than 75,000 permits for natural gas and oil drilling on public lands in the last 20 years, Hanis said. But it didn’t approve the first solar project for a public lands lease until this fall.

“From a political standpoint, there’s also the granting program that has added additionally flexibility in financing solar projects,” Hanis said.

Solar energy developers were spurred to action this year by a provision that allowed them to take up to a 30 percent tax credit as a cash rebate once construction was finished. That provision was extended another two years with an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts approved at the end of the year.

In addition to solid financial and political support, President Barack Obama offered symbolic support when he announced this fall that he would re-install solar panels on the White House roof. President Jimmy Carter installed solar thermal panels on the White House Roof in the 1908s. President Ronald Reagan later removed them.

“Around the world, the White House is a symbol of freedom and democracy," said United States Energy Secretary Steven Chu in an announcement made to Federal employees. "It should also be a symbol of America's commitment to a clean energy future."

Public Support
People haven’t always believed solar could work. This year saw a huge surge in public faith in the technology, said Andrew MaCalla, founder of Meridian Solar in Austin, Texas.

“I got into this business because I believed it should be big,” he said, “not because I knew it would be.”

The sea change has been swelling over the last few years, but MaCalla and others noticed a big increase in public support for solar this year.

Carolyn Sherwood in Seattle said she was one of those who didn’t think solar would work. She certainly didn’t think it would work in Seattle, notorious for its cloudy and rainy weather. But when she installed solar panels on her roof with her husband, she was impressed with the results.

I was shocked,” Sherwood said. “I just thought, ‘oh my goodness, this is something everybody needs to know about.’”

So she created the non-profit group Solar Pie (as in ‘pie in the sky idea’), and installed solar panels with a metering system on the roof of a prominent building in the city a year ago.

“People drive by that building on the cloudiest rainiest winter day, a typical Seattle day,” Carolyn said. “And that roof is producing energy.”

Big Year
The year saw major technological advancements and drops in the cost of solar photovoltaic panels as well. Solar cell efficiencies have been inching upward as manufacturers like SunPower and AUOptronics have announced advances. Record sales are also helping to drive prices down and competition up.

“The biggest challenges in the coming year will be financing and transmission needs,” Hanis said. “But 2010 was a good year. We managed to have amazing industry growth and support even without a comprehensive energy policy.”