US: Cumulative solar installs top 28 GW, 16 GW of renewables installed in 2015


A positive picture for renewables has been pained in the 158-page 2016 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, prepared by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.

Overall, it finds that 16 GW of renewables were installed in the U.S. in 2015, of which wind accounted for 8.5 GW and solar, 7.3 GW (grid connected utility-scale: 4.4 GW, distributed 2.9 GW). This represents 68% of all new energy capacity added last year, thus outstripping fossil fuels for a second year in a row.

Overall, cumulative renewable capacity is said to stand at 221 GW. While hydroelectric and pumped storage represent the lion’s share at 102 GW, solar ranks number three, behind wind, and holds the record for the fastest growing renewable, averaging 60% growth annually since 2008. Its cumulative capacity is 28 GW, comprising 17 GW of utility-scale and 11 GW of distributed systems. This year, IHS predicts the U.S. will install 16 GW of solar.

Corporate procurement of clean energy continues to gain in popularity, as previously reported, having doubled between 2013 and 2014, and again between 2014 and last year. Of the 3.1 GW procured in 2015, solar comprised 1.1 GW (wind accounted for the majority). "Google has been the largest player to date, procuring 71MW of solar and 1.2GW of wind. Amazon is second, with 80MW of solar and 458MW of wind contracted in 2015 alone," write the authors.

Electricity prices

At the same time, the factbook reports that since 2005, more than 40 GW of coal-burning power plants have been disconnected, compared to the 19 GW of new capacity brought online. The authors remark the combination of more renewables and less fossils has not pushed up retail power prices.

"Average retail electricity rates across the country remain 5.8% below the recent peak (2008) in real terms, in part due to cheap generation from natural gas. Year on year, retail rates in 2015 fell 1.3% in real terms, even as real GDP grew by 2.4%. There are, however, regional price differences," they write.

Looking at the impact of falling prices on technologies like solar PV, the factbook states that they can make it difficult for grid parity to be achieved. Nevertheless, since associated generation costs have also been falling, it has been possible to sign PPAS for rates close to $50/MWh (for utility-scale solar plants in Texas).

It goes on to say that distributed solar can be competitive in areas where there are higher retail rates or high PV capacity factors. Meanwhile, for crystalline silicon, LCOEs have fallen 6% since the first half of 2015 and unsubsidized projects are now as low as $81/MWh in Arizona, while spot market prices range from as high as $475/MWh for a solar REC in Massachusetts, to as low as $16/MWh in Pennsylvania.

Clean energy investment

In January, BNEF reported that clean energy financing reached US$329.3 billion in 2015, with China leading the charge, accounting for $111 billion. The U.S. ranked second, with $56 billion. While far behind China’s investment, it was still significantly up from the $3.9 billion invested in 2014.

At $30.2 billion, solar was the main beneficiary of the U.S.’ investment. While positive, investment in rooftop solar came in at just $8.7 billion, slightly below the 2014 total.


Overall, the factbook finds the U.S. the "most dynamic energy storage market globally," due to the diversity of business and financing models available in the sector. While project activity has been "erratic" in the past, the authors say the number of new project announcements grew markedly in 2014-15.

They go on to say that most activity in the energy storage arena is driven by policy, with the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) having funded the majority of projects commissioned between 2011 and 2014. Utilities, meanwhile, were found to have solicited for over 350 MW of storage in 2014, due to California’s 1.3 GW California energy storage mandate for 2015-2020.

While pumped hydropower storage projects account for over 97% of installed energy storage capacity in the U.S., lithium-ion battery technology is said to be the technology of choice by project developers for projects of all sizes.

Energy demand

The factbook found that energy productivity is continuing to improve, with the economy growing 10% between 2007 and 2015, while primary energy consumption fell 2.4%. This decoupling is also said to be evident in the electricity sector.

"Electric load growth in 2015 clocked in at only 0.5%, compared to a projected 2.4% increase in GDP. And since 2007, electricity demand has been flat, compared to a compounded annual growth rate of 2.4% from 1990 to 2000," write the authors.

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