Utilities in California and New Jersey dominated the top-ten list of new solar power interconnected by American electric utilities in 2011, according to the fifth-annual report from the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA). The rankings covered more than 240 of the most active utilities installing solar power, and represent more than 99 percent of the U.S. solar electric power marketplace.
California’s Pacific Gas & Electric (PGE) installed 288 megawatts (MW) of new solar in 2011, leading by a wide margin of more than 100 megawatts (MW) over the second-ranked utility, New Jersey’s Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G). California utilities Southern California Edison (SCE) and Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) ranked fourth and seventh, while New Jersey utilities Atlantic City Electric and Jersey Central Power & Light (JCPL) placed fifth and sixth, respectively.
Three key solar industry trends
SEPA’s rankings highlighted key trends across the country. First, utilities are widely adapting solar as their fastest-growing electricity source. Utilities interconnected more than 62,500 photovoltaic (PV) systems in 2011, with 13 utilities bringing more than 1,000 PV systems online and 22 interconnecting more than 500 systems. For perspective, 350 non-solar power plants greater than 1MW were expected across the entire country in 2011. SEPA predicts this trend will grow to more than 150,000 interconnections in 2015.
The rankings also note that utilities installed a record amount of new solar power for the fourth straight year, despite the national recession. U.S. utilities integrated 1.5 gigawatts (GW) of new solar in 2011, equivalent to six natural gas power plants. These figures represent a 38 percent growth in installations and 120 percent growth in installed MW from 2010.
Small- or medium-scale distributed rooftop installations, as opposed to large-scale centralized arrays, represented most of the new capacity – 89 percent of new installations came at residences while 53 percent of new capacity was installed on commercial rooftops.
SEPA also sees utility-driven procurement as vital to continued solar market expansion. These types of purchases made up 39 percent of new capacity in 2011 versus 9 percent in 2008, and large solar projects greater than 10MW made up the bulk of this new capacity. 18 projects greater than 10MW went online in 2011, totaling 332MW, and SEPA anticipates this market segment could increase to 1.5GW by 2012.
Interestingly, the 2011 rankings also showed the solar industry’s growth pattern spreading eastward. In 2008, 93 percent of the nation’s total capacity and eight of the top ten solar utilities were located in the Western U.S. By last year, only 61 percent of the national solar capacity and six of the top ten solar utilities were located in the Western U.S.
Individual utility stories stand out
Sheer industry growth in 2011 was remarkable, but some of the individual utility stories also bear noting. PG&E, the top-ranked utility, integrated more than 13,600 customer-sited projects and had three utility-owned projects totaling 50MW including the single-largest project completed in the U.S. Second-ranked PSE&G grew their solar portfolio 142 percent over 2010, with 83 percent small- or medium-scale distributed projects.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the utility in my childhood hometown, Vineland Municipal Electric Utility, ranked first nationally in installed solar watts-per-customer (w/c). The small utility integrated 19MW of new solar for nearly 25,000 customers, giving them 769 w/c – more than three times the second-ranked utility’s 192 w/c.
So while the solar industry as a whole may be facing uncertainty due to lingering questions about foreign competition and federal subsidies, SEPA's report makes clear that the future of smaller-scale distributed generation from solar power could not be brighter.