Sun power experts happy with growth
People who work in the solar power industry just can’t help themselves when talking about its future.
It’s a bright one, they say.
Bad puns notwithstanding, the industry locally and nationally is seeing a tremendous amount of business right now.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association’s U.S. Solar Market Insight report, which it releases each quarter, a combined 723 megawatts of solar power was installed nationwide in the first quarter of this year.
That amounts to 48 percent of all new electric capacity from all sources, including wind and natural gas drilling.
To solar power experts, that says it all.
“We are on the cusp of a new solar revolution in the U.S., driven by the rapid expansion of distributed generation,” said Shayle Kann, vice president of research for GTM Research, the Boston-based firm that conducts the quarterly study. “Installations will speed up over the next four years as projects become economically preferable to retail power in more locations.”
The report shows that both residential and commercial installations nationally and in the state are up dramatically, primarily because prices to install photovoltaic solar power systems has dropped in recent years.
The average national price declined 24 percent, to $3.37 per watt, in the first quarter of 2013 compared to the same period last year. By comparison, it was upwards to $12 a watt in 1998, according to a recent study by the Berkeley National Laboratory.
As a result, the residential market grew 53 percent in the first quarter of the year compared to the same period in 2012, while the utility market more than doubled over that same period, the solar energy report says.
All that’s happened at a time when government incentives are starting to diminish or go away completely, particularly for commercial and municipal projects.
That trend seems to bear up locally, too.
Heidi Ihske, co-owner of High Noon Solar, 569 S. Westgate Drive in Grand Junction, says it’s a combination of what tax incentives remain and the lowering price.
Couple that with other new payment options, such as low-interest loans and leasing plans, and homeowners are keeping people like Ihske busy.
“The rebates are still good and the cost of solar coming down has kind of walked alongside that so it doesn’t impact the market too much,” she said. “Business is good. We’re right into the thick of summer when more people are thinking about solar. It’s positive energy always when people start getting those high electric bills with their air conditioning and kick into that higher tier-two rate with Xcel.”
While government grants, rebates and tax breaks for larger-scale projects have all but gone away, they still exist for residential and smaller commercial projects.
Though it now applies to small wind-turbine residential installations, the Federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit was initially designed to offer a 30 percent personal income tax break on solar-electric systems, solar water heating systems and fuel cells.
That credit still exists and isn’t set to expire until at least 2016, though it could be extended beyond that time.
Meanwhile, the popular Solar Rewards Program that Xcel Energy closed out last year is expected to return.
The utility has worked out a settlement agreement with the solar power industry to bring it back next year and is awaiting approval from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. As a result, Xcel is still accepting applications for the program, which is designed to help the power supplier meet its 30 percent renewable energy standard.
Darin Carei, president of Atlasta Solar Center, 1111 S. Seventh St. in Grand Junction, says he, too, is seeing a bright future for both residential and commercial sales, but he expects prices to begin to stabilize in the coming years.
That, he said, is due to a surplus of solar panels that some manufacturers are currently selling at less than the cost of making them.
But that won’t last.
“At some point, the surplus will be absorbed and the market will fall back into balance,” Carei said. “But the cost of doing it still will come down, so I think we’re OK from the standpoint of, we’re not going to see a large-scale spike in (panel) prices. The technology is proven, so we’re not going to go away.”