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Did Solar Capacity Beat Natural Gas in the First Half of 2014?

Last year, solar photovoltaics and concentrating solar power were the second-largest source of new generating capacity in the U.S. That trend continued through the first half of 2014, with solar coming in behind natural gas in terms of new power plant additions, according to new data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Or did it?

New data from EIA shows that new natural gas plant additions beat out solar in the first six months of the year. But there’s a crucial segment of the market missing: commercial and residential solar projects of less than 1 megawatt.

Here’s what the government’s latest figures look like when comparing large-scale solar to all other resources. They show solid growth, but don’t tell the whole story.

When factoring in distributed projects of less than 1 megawatt, however, the rankings change. According to figures from GTM Research, which tracks all segments very closely, there were 2,478 megawatts of solar projects added to the grid in the first half of 2014. When compared to EIA figures, the solar PV and concentrating solar power sectors actually installed 159 megawatts more than the natural gas industry — accounting for about 53 percent of new additions.

In the second quarter of this year, the residential and commercial PV sectors made up almost half of all installations. 

Solar is still a very small part of the total U.S. electricity mix, only accounting for around a half percent of nationwide generation. That’s up significantly from 2008, when solar was at 0.02 percent of production. But the numbers show how far the technology needs to go before it comes anywhere close to rivaling conventional sources in terms of generation. (Although, in certain leading states like California and Hawaii, solar PV is hitting far more impressive generation records due to high concentrations of solar.)

GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association project that 6.5 gigawatts of PV will be installed in the U.S. in 2014, up by more than one-third over last year. There are now more than 15 gigawatts of solar plants operating around the country, with over 500,000 distributed systems installed at homes and businesses.

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The U.S. Solar Market Insight report is the most detailed and timely research available on the continuing solar growth and opportunity in the U.S. Click here for more information.

greentech mediaGreentech Media (GTM) produces industry-leading news, research, and conferences in the business-to-business greentech market. Our coverage areas include solar, smart grid, energy efficiency, wind, and other non-incumbent energy markets. For more information, visit: greentechmedia.com , follow us on twitter: @greentechmedia, or like us on Facebook: facebook.com/greentechmedia.

Stephen Lacey's picture

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Discussions

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 15, 2014 5:45 pm GMT

Seems to me, the more relevant issues are:

(1) Actual production, not installed capacity. This is a measure of economic viability.

(2) Need for new power plants in general.

In both regards, solar energy is a laggard, with the natural gas plants being significantly more valuable because they work when called upon and fulfill an actual need.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Sep 15, 2014 8:26 pm GMT

“Capacity” is a truly ridiculous number for solar, because capacity factors are so low. And with rooftop solar, which does’t track and is installed in non-ideal locations, it’s less than ridiculous.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 15, 2014 9:31 pm GMT

That’s exactly my point. The actual energy delivered relative to the name plate capacity directly impacts the ability to pay-off the build cost (including debt repayment). Putting a lot of money into something that works only occasionally is generally a poor investment.

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