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U.S. Solar Record Set in 2012

Installations of solar photovoltaics  in the United States grew by 76 percent in 2012, making solar the fastest growing energy source in the country, according to a new report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industry Associations (SEIA).

The report, U.S. Solar Market Insight: Year-in-Review 2012, shows that the U.S. installed 3,313 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaics (PV) in 2012, setting a new industry record.

“2012 was a busy year in the U.S. solar market,” said Shayle Kann, vice president at GTM Research, a division of Greentech Media that provides analysis of the sustainable technology market.

The company leading the U.S. solar boom is First Solar, based in Tempe, Ariz, which broke sales records in the fourth quarter of 2012 by raking in a whopping $1.1 billion.

Jim Hughes, First Solar's CEO since May of last year, was less than sanguine about the solar market, which he characterized as "very challenging." Still, Hughes noted optimistically that "we have seen some evidence of improvement."

Kann of GTM Research said that 2013 should be a strong year for U.S. solar, "driven in part by new mechanisms to increase the availability, and lower the cost, of solar project financing."

The average price for PV installations in the U.S. has fallen steadily since 2001, helping make solar more attractive. In California, Arizona, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New York, average prices for residential solar systems dropped nearly 20 percent in 2012. SEIA and GTM research expect solar to continue to boom as third-party solar financing options spread across the U.S.

On the technology front, Durham, N.C.-based Semprius Energy set a new world record in 2012 for PV module efficiency, becoming the first company ever to successfully convert over one-third of the sun's energy into electricity.

Jason Pontin, publisher and editor-in-chief of the MIT Technology Review, said Semprius is "a solar company worth watching closely. It stands out for its novel method of concentrating sunlight onto tiny solar cells to deliver photovoltaic modules with cutting-edge efficiency and the potential to significantly lower the cost of generating solar electricity."

The U.S. solar market has also been bolstered by generous federal tax benefits, grants and loans that support solar technology development and deployment. Furthermore, more than half of U.S. states require utilities to sell an increasing amount of renewable energy.

Government support for solar power is not without its pitfalls. In China, a government-subsidized solar bubble has begun to burst in recent years. Since 2010, shares of publicly-traded Chinese solar producers have been sliced in half, and more declines are expected. Analysts say China’s solar surplus has significantly outpaced demand.

“Massive subsidies and state intervention have stimulated overcapacity more than 20 times total Chinese consumption and close to double total global demand,” said Milan Nitzschke, president of EU ProSun, a subsidiary of Germany-based SolarWorld that has sought to prevent subsidized Chinese solar technology from unfairly competing in global markets.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has taken action to protect U.S. solar producers from subsidized Chinese solar technology. In May of last year, the Commerce Department imposed anti-dumping duties of more than 30 percent as well as countervailing duties on Chinese solar products to compensate for Chinese subsidies.

Ultimately, says the U.S. Solar Market Insight report, more solar power in the U.S. means more jobs for American workers.

“There were 16 million solar panels installed in the U.S. last year – more than 2 panels per second of the work day,” said Resch, “and every one of these panels was bolted down by a member of the U.S. workforce.”

A complete version of the report is available on SEIA’s website.

[Image credit: Beverly & Pack, Flickr]

Harry Stevens headshotHarry Stevens

Harry Stevens is a freelance reporter covering climate change, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and sustainable finance. Harry has contributed to several media outlets, including Justmeans, GreenBiz, TriplePundit, and Sustainablog. You can follow Harry on Twitter: @Harry_Stevens

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