By Jonathan Marshall
Did the sun shine a little brighter in 2011? Probably not, but the renewable energy sector certainly did, as solar and wind power made solid gains in a long-term campaign to replace fossil fuels.
According to GreenTechMedia, “The U.S. solar energy industry was one of the fastest-growing sectors of the American economy in 2011.”
The numbers aren’t all in yet, but at last count, total solar capacity in the United States was on track to increase by 1,500 megawatts, a huge jump from the 887 MW installed in 2010. That will bring the total capacity of solar installations connected to the electric grid to more than 3,000 megawatts.
Federal incentives and industry overproduction of solar panels helped slash prices. Demand for solar projects from utilities such as PG&E also played a big role in the industry’s soaring capacity.
PG&E, for example, began receiving power from five solar photovoltaic projects built by independent developers, with a total capacity of 135 MW. It began producing power at three sites developed by the utility itself, for another 50 MW of capacity. PG&E also signed contracts for 200 MW of new solar power in coming years.
Wind power made national gains as well, adding about 7,000 MW of new capacity for a cumulative total of more than 45,000 MW. Wind accounted for at least 20 percent of overall electric power production in two states (Iowa and South Dakota) and nearly 56 percent of total power for a time on October 6 in the service area of Public Service Co. of Colorado.
The industry benefited from a drop or more than 20 percent in turbine prices between 2008 and 2010. It also enjoyed a federal production tax credit (slated to expire this year unless extended by Congress) and strong interest from utilities in procuring cleaner energy. A total of 8,400 MW of new wind capacity was under construction at the end of the third quarter in 2011.
PG&E brought 37 MW of new wind capacity online last year and signed two new contracts totaling 263 MW.
Looking a year or two into the future, the outlook is especially bright for solar energy in PG&E’s service area. Seven huge photovoltaic projects, totaling more than 1,900 MW, are finally under construction and should come fully online by 2015.
By the end of 2012 alone, these projects could add 700 MW of new clean power to PG&E’s portfolio, according to Gary Jeung, senior director of renewable energy procurement at PG&E.
They should make a significant dent in PG&E’s efforts to meet the state’s ambitious requirement that utilities get 33 percent of their electricity from qualifying renewable sources by 2020. PG&E expects to reach 20 percent this year.