If you’re wondering how solar transformed from a subsidy-reliant niche product to an unstoppable force in our electrical future, here’s the low down.
After decades of development and political debate about solar energy, the industry is finally ready to stand on its own. Solar power projects around the world are beating fossil fuels on price without subsidies, and each time they do, the future looks a little brighter.
But there’s still a lot most people don’t know about solar energy. Here are 10 things that may surprise you.
1. Solar power is the most abundant energy source on Earth
There’s enough solar energy hitting the Earth every hour to meet all of humanity’s power needs for an entire year.
Every ounce of oil, every lump of coal, and every cubic foot of natural gas could be left in the ground if only we could capture one hour’s worth of solar energy each year. That’s the scale of the opportunity.
To put the it into a different perspective, if we covered the Mojave Desert with solar arrays, it would generate more than twice as much electricity as the U.S. uses annually.
2. Solar panel costs have fallen 99% since 1977
In 1977, it cost $77 per watt for a simple solar cell. According to Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research’s Q3 2017 Solar Market Insight Report, the cost of a solar cell now is $0.21 per watt. An entire assembled module is $0.39 per watt.
3. Solar Energy is cheaper than fossil fuels
According to Lazard’s Levelized Cost Of Energy Analysis–Version 11.0, solar energy costs as little as 4.3 cents per kWh on an unsubsidized basis, cheaper than nearly every option for new fossil-fuel power plants. The cheapest fossil fuel option is natural gas, which costs between 4.2 and 7.8 cents per kWh.
IMAGE SOURCE: SOLAR ENERGY INDUSTRIES ASSOCIATION.
7. 39% of new electricity production capacity installed in 2016 was solar
Not only is solar cost effective, it’s a big part of our new power plant mix. As illustrated below, last year, 39% of all new electric capacity was from solar energy, up from just 4% in 2010. As costs come down and more utilities look for solar assets, this percentage of new additions will likely go up.
8. Solar is the fastest energy source to deploy
When disaster strikes, no electricity source can be built or repaired as quickly as solar — as the situation in Puerto Rico following this year’s hurricanes demonstrated. Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) and others were able to build small solar power plants with energy storage capabilities on the island in a matter of weeks. No fossil-fuel power plant, nor any other renewable energy facility, could have been brought only so quickly.
9. There’s probably a solar panel near you
Big solar power plants built in remote deserts may get a lot of attention, but it’s distributed solar that’s really disrupting how we look at energy. These projects are spread all over the grid, from home rooftops to panels deployed on your local big-box retailer.
You may be surprised to find out that according to the Solar Energy Industries Association’s latest Solar Means Business report, Target (NYSE:TGT) is the largest corporate solar energy buyer, with 147.5 MW of solar generation, and Walmart (NYSE:WMT) is second with 145.0 MW. Another notable corporate buyer is Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), with 93.9 MW of solar generation in the U.S., enough to fully charge 39 million iPhones every day for a year. Long term, Apple aims to not only power its operations with renewable energy, but to buy enough renewable energy to power the devices it makes.
10. Utilities are giving people solar options
If you personally want to go solar, a rooftop system may be the choice for you. But even if you don’t own a home that’s suitable for installing solar panels, you can get 100% of your electricity from solar energy in a growing number of places. Community solar projects are popping up in states such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, allowing ordinary consumers to be the power purchase agreement customers for solar projects. And utilities across the country are giving customers the option to source their electricity from wind or solar for an extra fee.
The bottom line is that solar is booming around the world, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. Investors across the energy spectrum should take notice.