The United States is becoming a solar powerhouse as domestic and international companies rush to invest in new projects.
A recent study by GTM Research, a market analysis company focusing on renewable energy industries, estimated that the U.S. solar market could grow eightfold to $8 billion by 2015. Driving such growth are state policies that require power companies to generate a certain portion of their electricity from renewable sources.
Generous federal and state government tax credits aimed at spurring clean energy sector growth have also made such investments more competitive with already-subsidized, traditional fossil fuel plants.
In late November, for example, a Seattle-based solar developer, Summit Power, teamed up with one of the world’s largest manufacturers of photovoltaic solar panels, Norway-based Renewable Energy Corp., to form a joint venture to build solar plants in the western United States.
The new company, NorthLight Power, has signed a contract to provide a California electric utility with power from a 60-megawatt solar farm that will be built in California’s sunny Central Valley and go online in mid-2013.
Sixty megawatts is enough to power about 45,000 households. The company also has a smaller solar project planned for Nevada that is expected to produce 51 megawatts of power when it goes online in 2012.
“The western United States is where we see the best opportunity in the near term, but we would definitely consider expanding geographically over time,” said David Felix, NorthLight Power’s director of development. “The West has the combination of supportive state policies and the solar resource. A solar panel in the West makes a lot more power than it does in the East.”
The investors in NorthLight Power are optimistic about the United States, Felix said, especially as subsidies in some financially strapped European nations are now beginning to disappear.
The United States, and the West in particular, “has good sun, and we are one of the world’s largest electricity users,” he said. “This is why we’re seeing all these European and Asian market entrants today.”
California will begin implementing the nation’s most comprehensive cap-and-trade law in January 2011. Voters there turned down a proposal in the November elections to delay the landmark legislation, setting the stage for a carbon market that will open up in 2012 and cover 40 million people and the nation’s largest state economy.
A cap-and-trade scheme gives economic incentives to electric utilities and other companies that reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, while punishing those that don’t. This creates a demand for green energy technology.
To help the solar industry along, the U.S. Department of the Interior has made public land available for several large projects in recent months.
In October, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gave two companies — Tessera Solar of Texas, and Chevron Energy Solutions of California — access to nearly 6,800 acres (2,752 hectares) of public lands in the California desert to build and operate solar plants there. Together, the projects could power up to half a million homes and create nearly 1,000 new jobs, the Interior Department reported.
Since then, additional solar power parks have been announced in California and Nevada with other private sector companies. That brings the total capacity of solar power on public lands to 1,200 megawatts.
“That’s 1,200 more than have ever been built on public lands before,” Salazar wrote. “These projects are milestones in our energy future.”