#MillionSolarStrong: U.S. Solar Reaches an Awesome Milestone. Smart Policies Will Help Those Numbers Soar.

The solar array on the roof of NRDC’s New York City office is now one of more than a million solar installations across the U.S., up from only 33 grid-tied systems in 1998.
Credit: Nathanael Greene

As a solar advocate, I find myself regularly blown away by just how rapidly the technology has grown over the last couple of decades. Here’s an example: In 1998, a total of 33 grid-tied solar systems were installed in the whole of the United States—31 residential and two “non-residential” systems—for a grand total of 0.2 megawatts of electricity. That was enough to power, well, about 33 homes. Today, fewer than 20 years later, we’ve reached an incredible milestone: There are now more than one million solar installations across the U.S. Think about that: One million! As our friends at the Solar Energy Industries Association and other pro-solar groups are saying, as a nation, we’re now a #MillionSolarStrong.

One million isn’t the only big number we solar advocates have to throw around. These days, the total installed solar capacity of the United States isn’t measured in fractions of megawatts but in tens of gigawatts, with 27.4 gigawatts of clean, high-tech solar power now installed on home rooftops, school parking canopies, and utility-scale solar farms in rural counties—enough to power 5.4 million homes.

Here’s the even better news: With the right public policies in place, the amount of solar in the U.S. is set to double over the next two years. Double! (And, by 2020, that doubled number could double again, to 20 million homes-worth, assuming the right policies remain in place. A pretty exhilarating prospect, if you ask me.)

Smart government and utility policies play a key role in deploying solar and other kinds of clean energy, and in helping to dramatically lower their cost, too. That’s one reason why, here at NRDC, we were all particularly heartened last December when a bipartisan coalition in Congress reauthorized important wind and solar power tax credits as part of the omnibus spending bill. A federal 30 percent investment tax credit now extends to residential, commercial, and utility-scale solar installations through 2019, with lower incentives through 2021. (After that, the incentive for residential solar projects is scheduled to end and the incentives for commercial and utility-scale solar projects drops to 10 percent, permanently.)

At the state level, too, we’re seeing some important progress, with renewable energy standards in several leading states moving ambitiously and appropriately higher. Two of these states, California and New York, account for more than 18 percent of the US population. And last year, they each announced programs that will require that 50 percent of their electricity comes from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2030. Other states, including Oregon, Hawaii, and Vermont, have recently set renewable energy standards that are almost equally prudent.

We can’t assume that this amazing solar progress will continue uninterrupted, however. In fact, one of the main drivers of solar adoption, net metering, which offers fair credits to solar owners who export their excess electricity back to the grid, is now under attack in states and utility territories across the nation. In Nevada, for instance, solar installations have recently ground almost to a halt after the state’s Public Utilities Commission substantially cut the price it requires utilities to pay for net metered electricity and tripled an electric-bill fixed cost, claiming solar owners were costing other electric customers money because solar owners weren’t paying enough to maintain the grid. In fact, a 2014 study commissioned by the very same Nevada PUC found just the opposite—that non-solar owners also benefit from adding solar to the grid. “Overall,” the PUC’s report said, in typical bureaucratese, “we do not estimate a substantial cost shift to non-participants due to net metering going forward given the current and proposed reforms to the program. We estimate a total net present value benefit of 2004-2016 NEM systems to non-participating ratepayers of $36 million during the systems’ lifetimes.”

In other words, despite solar’s many and obvious benefits, we need strong policies, like federal clean energy tax credits and net energy metering, to keep the progress going and continue the exponential growth. Still, there is much to celebrate and much to champion in solar’s exponential growth to 1 million arrays: more than 200,000 good jobs, a more stable climate, lower electric prices, cleaner air for all of us to breathe, and, with the right policies in place, the prospect of much, much more.

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