The Large Scale Force of Small Scale Solar

Soon, you will learn that US solar growth doubled last year, as the country added a gargantuan 14.6 GW of new capacity. The utility scale sector saw the highest growth rate in 2016, and that has caused some small consternation among analysts who observe a concurrent slowdown in the rate of new rooftop solar, in the residential market. But there is little to worry about in the performance of non-utility scale solar for just a single year. Why? Because small scale scale solar is now a major force, cumulatively, in US renewable generation.

According to EIA, small scale solar (typically referred to as distributed solar) generated 11.23 TWh compared to total solar generation of 28.92 TWh in 2014, or 38%. In 2015, small scale solar generated 14.94 TWh compared to total solar generation of 39.03 TWh, in 2015—again, a 38% share. In 2016, according to EIA (whose data tends to lag), small scale solar is on pace to generate about 19.94 TWh in estimated total solar generation of 56.85 TWh, a 35% share. And given the more updated data now emerging on last year’s installation of capacity, these generation totals may be revised higher.

A larger point is worth making here, however. The US electricity system has been running along for a decade now, generating roughly 4000 TWh per year, without any growth or decline. This data point alone is often marshaled to make the case that economic growth itself is on the wane in the US; and it’s certainly the case growth overall is running at a new normal, around 1%, in the developed world. But it’s also the case that efficiency is driving a large part of this phenomenon. Energy capture—the kind enabled by wind and solar—is alot more efficient than energy combustion. Meanwhile, the US power generation fleet continues to turnover as new plants with the latest turbines (especially in natural gas) replace old coal plants. Finally, a quiet revolution continues to take place in US building construction, driving further efficiencies. So yes it’s now true: US economic growth has quite effectively decoupled from “growth” in energy consumption.

–Gregor Macdonald

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Photo: Duxbury Beach, Massachusetts, by Gregor Macdonald