December is Energy Month at Paperitalo Publications (just in case you haven't heard or read this a dozen times already). And in this column, I'll be talking about a form of energy that has not been making the energy headlines like the decline of coal and the rise of natural gas. It's solar power--electricity derived from the sun overhead, rather than the ground underneath.
According to a report by Reuters News Service, solar power is on pace in this year of 2016 to add more electricity to the US grid than any form of energy. This feat is driven more by economics than environmental pressures. The cost of electricity derived from large-scale solar installations is now comparable to, and sometimes cheaper than, natural gas-fired power, even without incentives aimed at promoting green power.
The early solar industry--think 1980s--was dominated by rooftop panels that provided some homes and a few businesses with a portion of their power and heating needs. Indeed, most people probably thought of solar arrays as rather unsightly rooftop decorations. Today, however, large ground-based solar array systems that sell electricity to electric utilities are the heavy hitters in solar power. Such systems are expected to account for more than 70% of all new solar added to the grid in 2016.
Rooftop solar electricity was really expensive, far more so than other forms of power derivation. But it was novel and green. Today, the emphasis is on economics. The cost of solar power, through the economies of scale, has been driven slightly lower than the most efficient natural gas plants, according to a 2015 study by investment bank Lazard.
Utilities in the states of Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Alabama--to name only a few--are turning to large-scale solar facilities because they make financial sense. "We are seeing large swaths of centralized utility-scale solar being procured primarily because of how cost-competitive it is," said Corey Honeyman, who follows the US solar industry for market research firm GTM Research.
In our next Final Report, we'll take a look at another rapidly growing contributor to the national grid, another electricity generator using a free and abundant resource--wind power. Stay tuned!
Chuck Swann is Senior Editor of Paperitalo Publications.