US: Record year for residential solar installations

11. December 2012 | Applications & Installations, Global PV markets, Industry & Suppliers, Markets & Trends | By:  Cheryl Kaften

America’s solar installers are racking up some of their highest sales results ever, according to the Washington, DC-based trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Solon solar photovoltaic plant

This quarter marked the third-largest leap in capacity on record for the U.S. PV industry.

A report just released by the association, "U.S. Solar Market Insight: Third Quarter 2012," finds that the total U.S. photovoltaics industry installed 684 MW from July through September – representing 44% growth over the same period last year.

This quarter marked the third-largest leap in capacity on record for the U.S. PV industry and raised the total installed capacity through the first three quarters of the year to 1.99 GW – already surpassing 2011’s annual total of 1.88 GW.

The third quarter was characterized by strong growth in distributed generation (DG): The residential photovoltaics sector installed more than 118 MW, an all-time high for a quarter.

Collectively, there are now 5.9 GW of photovoltaics in the U.S., generated by more than 271,000 installations. The cumulative U.S. total for both photovoltaics and concentrating solar power (CSP) has reached more than 6.4 GW of solar electric capacity – enough to power more than one million average American households.

Although California and Arizona continued to lead in cumulative deployments for the year, five other U.S. states – including Pennsylvania, which had recently suffered an oversupply of Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECS) – took the lead during Q3.

Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania each enjoyed 5 MW or more of year-over-year growth in PV installations for Q3, according to the report, which was conducted on behalf of SEIA by Boston-based GTM Research. However, some historically booming markets, including New Jersey, are midway through a correction period.

Third-party ownership option boosts business

Massachusetts’ capacity, up from 25 MW in Q2 2012 to 40 MW in Q3, was elevated by the expansion of net metering allowances, as well as an influx of national retailers that offered leasing and other innovative third-party ownership models.

Indeed, during the quarter, third-party systems ranged from 57 to 91% of total residential deployments in Arizona, Colorado, California and Massachusetts, and the analysts expect them to remain a hot option for U.S. households into 2013 and beyond.

"While Q3 2012 was remarkable for the U.S. PV market, it is just the opening act for what we expect to see in Q4," said Shayle Kann, vice president of Research at GTM. "We [predict that] more than 1.2 gigawatts of PV [will] be installed next quarter on the back of developers who are pushing to meet year-end deadlines in both the utility and commercial segments. We also expect to see the residential PV market post another record number in Q4, as third-party residential installers gain more traction in mature, cost-effective markets."

Historically, Q4 has been the strongest for PV installations in the United States. In 2010 and 2011, Q4 accounted for 41 and 42% of annual installations, respectively. The report forecasts a similar Q4 bump in 2012 with approximately 1.2 GW to be installed. That would not only account for 38% of this year’s forecasted total, but would be the largest single quarter on record for the U.S. PV market, by far.

Q4 2012 also will be exceptionally strong for CSP installations, with more than 140 MW slated to go online. SEIA and GTM Research expect 2012 growth to top 70% with a record 3.2 GW of solar installed – enough to power more than half a million average U.S. homes.

Costs continue on a downward trajectory

System prices for PV projects in the U.S. continued their downward trajectory during the third quarter. Average residential system prices dropped quarter-over-quarter from US$5.45 (€4.21) per watt to $5.21 (€4.03) per watt nationally; while average non-residential prices declined US$0.15 (€0.12) per watt, falling to US$4.18 (€3.23). Utility system prices, which are currently at $2.40 (€1.85) per watt, continue to see the greatest reduction in prices of the three market segments covered – falling by 30% since Q3 2011.

"This quarter’s record residential growth shows the power of innovation in the U.S. solar industry," said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of SEIA. "With costs continuing to come down and new financing options, solar energy is affordable today for more families, businesses, utilities, and the military. Thanks to smart long-term policy, the solar industry is growing to meet the challenge of putting Americans back to work and helping to grow both our nation’s economy and our clean energy portfolio."

Following the U.S. Commerce Department’s final decision in the antidumping (AD) and countervailing duty (CVD) investigations against China’s c-Si cell manufacturers, GTM Research maintains that the new U.S. tariffs on Chinese solar modules will not have a material impact on pricing in the U.S.

Many manufacturers continue to obtain U.S.-bound cells via tolling from Taiwan with an estimated cost impact of less than US$0.10 (€0.08) per watt. This does not necessarily prohibit Chinese manufacturers from pricing modules below their domestic competitors. Coupled with the U.S. AD/CVD decision, the outcome of the trade dispute in Europe may have a greater impact on U.S. supply than the U.S. decision, alone.

Pricing for polysilicon and PV components remained soft in Q3 2012 due to the persistence of the global oversupply environment that the industry has faced since early 2011. Blended polysilicon prices declined by 15% to $22/kg. Blended module ASPs for Q3 2012 were down to $0.75/W, a staggering 43% lower than Q3 2011 levels of $1.32/W.

More capacity to come in 2013

There were 21 utility projects (or phases of projects) completed in Q3 2012, ranging in size from 300 kW to 115 MW. Most notable among these were phases of some of the largest projects in development – Agua Caliente in Arizona and California Valley Solar Ranch in California.

There are currently 2.1 GWdc of utility photovoltaic projects operating in the United States, as compared to 10 GW of projects with power purchase agreements (PPAs) that are not yet operating.

More capacity should come online soon from the following projects:

  • The BrightSource Energy Ivanpah project in California is progressing on schedule, with Phase I (126 MW) on track to be completed in Q4 2012 and the full project (392 MW) online in summer 2013;
  • Abengoa’s Solana 280 MW Generating Station in Arizona is over 75% complete and expected to be online in summer 2013;
  • SolarReserve continues PPA discussions with Tri-State and Xcel for its 200 MW Saguache project in Colorado; and
  • The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has unanimously approved an amended PPA for BrightSource’s 200 MW Sonoran West Project.

Today, the U.S. solar energy industry employs 119,000 Americans at 5,600 companies, mostly small businesses, across all 50 states.


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