News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

Two New Reports Indicate Sunny News for Small-Scale Solar

Plans for smaller solar installations like these at California's DeAnza College make up 40% of the U.S. solar development pipeline | Photo: Darin Dingler/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A pair of reports released this week indicate that the future of renewable energy might just be encapsulated in the old saying "Small is Beautiful." According to Pike Research, installations of distributed renewables such as small solar, micro-wind, and stationary fuel cells are set to triple in the next five years. Meanwhile, the renewables market analyst firm NPD Solarbuzz reports that nearly half of solar projects in planning or under construction in the United States are smaller installations of half a megawatt or less.

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The NPD Solarbuzz report says that small solar has gained momentum in recent months, in part due to the burgeoning solar leasing model, in which property owners can have solar panels installed for little or no upfront costs if they don't insist on owning the panels outright. The firm reports that proposed installations between 50 and 500 kilowatts in size account for 39.9% of pending projects in the U.S. That figure doesn't include household installations, which are generally less than 10 kilowatts in size. Included are larger projects on schools, hospitals, government and commercial buildings.

California accounts for more than a quarter of the U.S. solar pipeline, according to NPD Solarbuzz.

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The increase in smaller solar installations is powering a shift to a far more decentralized grid, according to Pike Research, a division of Navigant Energy Consulting. Pike says the trends indicate that the rate at which distributed renewables are installed worldwide will reach 63.5 gigawatts by 2017, three times this year's rate. By 2017, says Pike, we'll have added 210 gigawatts of distributed renewables to our current global portfolio -- capacity equivalent to 400 mid-range coal-fired plants.

Pike says that the bulk of these new installations will be small-scale PV, a trend driven by the steep drop in cost of PV panels, which last year dropped to $1 per watt -- down from $4 in 2006.

These trends have been apparent for a couple of years, and they only keep gaining steam. It's quite likely, at this rate, that electrical power utilities will find themselves in much the same position in a couple years that the recording industry was in after the advent of file-sharing: with technological-driven decentralization threatening their business model. Some will likely react defensively to protect the status quo, as witness San Diego Gas and Electric's attempt to charge rooftop solar owners for grid access. Others may adapt more easily to their seemingly inevitable new role as energy brokers rather than energy providers. Time will tell which strategy will pay off in the long run.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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