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Is the US in the Middle of a Solar Boom?

Almost exactly a year ago, during the height of the Solyndra hysteria, Mitt Romney made a rather odd statement about solar. (Yes, we’re still talking about Romney).

“When other solar companies saw Solyndra get $530 million from the government, investors pulled back in that industry,” he said. “So instead of encouraging solar development, the Obama administration hurt it.”

Actually, the statement wasn’t just odd. It was a flat out lie. In reality, the U.S. solar industry installed record amounts of solar in 2011 while bringing in nearly $2 billion in venture capital. And moving into 2012, that trend continued. In the second quarter of this year, U.S. solar installations jumped 116 percent over the same period in 2011, partly driven by large installations supported by the very loan guarantee program that Romney claimed was killing solar.

And according to Shayle Kann, vice president of research at GTM Research, that deployment was just “the opening act” for the final quarter of this year. According to a new report from GTM and the Solar Energy Industries Association, the U.S. market could see 1.2 gigawatts of solar photovoltaics installed through January, bringing 2012 installations to 3.2 gigawatts. That’s enough capacity to power about half a million average American homes.

Related Article: New Technology Uses Nanoparticles to Turn Solar Energy into Steam

Solar Power Installations in the US

The report shows that installers deployed 684 megawatts of projects last quarter, representing 44 percent growth over the third quarter of 2011.

Related Article: The Renewable Energy Illusion

The continued boom in the solar market means more jobs and better economics.

According to a census of the solar industry conducted by the Solar Foundation, the sector now employs more than 119,000 Americans — an increase of 13,872 workers over 2011.

And as more systems get deployed and businesses get more efficient, the price of solar continues to fall. According to the GTM analysis, solar PV system prices fell from $5.45 per watt to $5.21 per watt. Price declines were even greater in the utility sector, with system prices falling to $2.40 per watt — a 30 percent drop since the same period last year.

This matches historic declines in price reported by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. A recent analysis from LBNL found that U.S. residential and commercial solar PV systems fell 5 to 7 percent each year between 1998 and 2011. (Interestingly, even with these consistent drops, the installed price of solar in the U.S. is still nearly double that of Germany, which hosts a much more mature solar market).

After all the political hand-wringing about solar during the U.S. election, this report shows the industry is indeed chugging along in the U.S. While some key states may see a downturn in installs next year, America’s share of the global market continues to expand. With a 70 percent growth rate expected in 2012, the U.S. will soon represent 10 percent of the world market.

By. Stephen Lacey


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