The US solar market is seeing unprecedented growth, according to the US Solar Market Insight report, with 2017 on track to break more records for solar capacity additions. It’s a fast-moving train, and despite President-elect Donald Trump’s vision for greater production of fossil fuels and criticism of incentives for renewables, SEIA’s VP of Communications, Dan Whitten, said “there’d be no incentive to him to stop the train.”
A Trump administration may cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, scrap President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, step up fracking and push through new pipeline construction, which would take the country giant steps backward in the progress that’s been made toward carbon reduction. But solar will not be on the chopping block and the main reason is economics. Phil Coupe, one of the founders of ReVision Energy, a leading New England-based solar installer, said that his company remains optimistic about the long-term future of the solar industry. “There is strong data to support this view, including the fact that 84% of Trump supporters are in favor of solar, not to mention the vast majority of Clinton supporters. It's also true that it will be almost impossible for the US to completely disentangle itself from the Paris Climate Agreement now that Obama has signed on and committed America to a minimum 3-year engagement,” Coupe said.
The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Job’s Census forecast that employment in the solar industry would grow nearly 15% in 2016, which is 15 times faster than the overall economy. In 2015, 10% of that workforce was made up of veterans. The US government’s SunShot Initiative's Solar Ready Vets program is training military service to size and install solar energy systems, connect them to the grid, and understand and comply with local building codes. This program, enabled by the Department of Defense’s SkillBridge initiative, allows exiting military personnel to pursue civilian job training, employment skills training, apprenticeships and internships up to 6 months prior to their separation date.
The Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative was launched in 2011 with the goal of making solar (without subsidies) cost-competitive with other energy sources by 2020. In five years, the solar industry has brought the cost of solar down more than 90% of the 2020 goal, reducing the cost of utility-scale solar PV electricity to $0.06 per kilowatt hour. By achieving these goals, solar from utility-scale plants would be among the least expensive options for new power plant generation.
Commercial solar is also booming, with many blue-chip companies putting solar on their warehouses and corporate rooftops—a perfect testament to the fact that solar is a common-sense investment. The top corporate users in the US have now installed more than 1GW of solar at nearly 2000 locations nationwide. The top ten corporate investors include:
- Target (147.5MW)
- Walmart (145MW)
- ProLogis (107.8MW)
- Apple (93.9MW)
- Costco Wholesale (50.7MW)
- Kohl’s (50.2MW)
- IKEA (44MW)
- Macy’s (38.9MW)
- General Growth Properties (30.2MW)
- Hartz (22.7MW)
Furthermore, equity investors are betting long-term on the solar industry and putting some serious money into solar assets. For example, Soltage and Basalt Infrastructure Partners recently announced a $140 million equity capital partnership to fund over 100MW of commercial, industrial and utility solar projects across the US. Forum Equity Partners is an investment firm headquartered in Canada, which just announced $15 million in development capital and construction equity financing for National Energy Partners’ portfolio of solar projects throughout the US. And then there are the big names behind investments like Tesla’s $2.6 billion merger with solar company SolarCity, and Tesla’s also partnering with Panasonic on a photovoltaic manufacturing facility in New York State.
State by state basis
With utilities regulated by the state within which they are located, much solar policy is controlled at the state and not the federal level. In some states where solar incentives have been generous, solar has flourished. But that is not always the case. In other states where incentives are paltry, consumers continue to install solar. ReVision Energy, for example, operates across three New England states. Coupe stated that “In Maine, our ongoing growth and success is powerful evidence that the solar industry has resilience and staying power in the face of incredibly stiff political opposition. Maine is the only state in New England without a solar incentive due to the 6-year reign of a staunchly anti-renewable energy Governor. Despite the lack of incentives, practical Maine homeowners, business owners and institutional leaders continue to invest in solar energy.”
Energy independence and security
It's a fact that fossil fuel reserves are seen around the globe as a strategic defense asset. Coupe stated that "global population is at 7 billion and we are on our way to 9.6 billion by 2050 which means that finite fossil fuels will be gobbled up in a relatively short amount of time if we don’t start reducing consumption immediately. From a national defense standpoint, it’s worth noting that fossil fuels are necessary to protect our border and to project force around the globe with fighter jets and naval assets. Thus it is logical to conclude that the nation that conserves its reserves for the longest period of time will be the strongest country on earth." Under this scenario, there is zero downside risk to America maximizing energy efficiency and using its domestic underground fossil fuels as stingily as possible to foster a transition to renewable energy combined with battery storage and microgrids.
Another way that solar contributes to energy independence and security is the role it plays on military bases. Solar + storage solutions enable military bases and outposts to reduce their dependence on diesel fuel—the delivery of which has been known targets in hostile locations. Today the US Department of Defense is the largest acquirer of renewable energy in America.
A growing industry
The solar industry should be confident that a Trump administration has many reasons not to stop or slow this growing industry. SEIA released the following statement following the US presidential election: "We congratulate President-elect Donald Trump for his victory in this historic election. The solar industry, born in America, is creating thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investments across American communities. SEIA's 1,000 member companies - the great majority of which are small businesses - will continue to innovate and provide clean, competitive, reliable, and affordable energy for all Americans."