Coming off a record year for U.S. solar installations in 2016, the first quarter of 2017 wasn’t so bad either, according to data released by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the industry’s lead trade group.
The U.S. saw the installation of more than 2 gigawatts, or billion watts, of new solar capacity, a quarter of it on individual rooftops, according to a Thursday report by SEIA and GTM Research.
That ranks solar second to natural gas overall for new U.S. electricity installations in the quarter, and was only a slight — 2 percent — year-on-year decline.
And yes, it’s all happening under President Donald Trump, who has proposed to slash solar energy research funding, rescind the Clean Power Plan, and withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement — and whose Energy Department is undertaking a study of the U.S. electric grid that critics have charged is aimed at undermining intermittent energy sources like wind and solar.
There are several reasons, explained Abigail Ross Hopper, the president and chief executive of the solar association.
There are still state level incentives to add renewables to the grid, Hopper noted. Solar power itself keeps getting cheaper. And most of all, there’s the 30 percent solar investment tax credit, which has been a huge boon to the industry and has been extended through 2021.
“The majority of projects are economic- and not policy-driven at this point, so as the prices have gone down, installations have gone up,” said Hopper.
Many of the quarter’s solar installations - ranging from large scale utility installations to individualized rooftop arrays - were set in motion prior to Trump’s election.
“The majority of the projects that came online in 2017 were already procured under the Obama administration in 2016,” she said. “I think that has more to do with tax policy than who was in the White House. There was an extension of the investment tax credit at the end of 2015 . . . so then, as folks knew they had a little bit more time, there were a fair number of projects that spilled over.”
But installations aren’t expected to slow down much, either. The industry projects there will be a total of 12.6 gigawatts of solar installed in 2017, which would fall short of 2016’s record but still be a very impressive number.
Solar now provides about 1.6 percent of U.S. electricity, according to SEIA — reflecting 44.7 total installed gigawatts in the U.S. — and should reach 2 percent by the end of this year. Wind supplies about 6 percent — but solar has had very rapid growth lately.
For comparison, natural gas provided 34 percent of U.S. electricity in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and coal provided 30 percent.
But there is concern a looming trade dispute could blunt the growth of solar.
The U.S. International Trade Commission has agreed to hear a petition from an Atlanta-based solar panel manufacturer which declared bankruptcy in April and laid off its workers, charging that cheap solar cells imported from Asia are flooding U.S. markets, and asking for the setting of a minimum price for solar modules.
The Solar Energy Industries Association has opposed the petition from Suniva, saying it could drive up the price of panels and threaten solar jobs.
Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement was seen as a lesser problem.
Tom Werner, the chief executive of the large U.S. solar company SunPower, told the Post that Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement poses “one more challenge” for the industry. But “I would say that it’s likely that the industry will sort that economic challenge out,” he said.
Werner also noted concerns in the industry that the Energy Department won’t be supporting as many investments in renewables or solar. But he argued homeowners could react to Trump’s Paris move with defiance, thinking: “’I’m not in agreement with what Trump’s doing with the Paris accord, so I’m going to put a solar system on my house.’”
“I think the broader picture is still quite positive for solar, I just think there’s a little bit of friction by not supporting the Paris accord . . . and the general demeanor of the administration,” Werner said.