Why utility-scale solar is booming on the East Coast

When we think about solar energy, California comes immediately to mind. And why wouldn’t you think of the Golden State, considering all the sun that slathers the most populous state? Plus Jerry Brown, during his first run as governor of California, was touting its benefits at a time when children played outside and walked to school while bell bottoms, disco and Wonder Bread were in fashion. But where is the real boom in solar really happening? The original 13 states are more than holding their own when it comes to utility-scale solar. Whether they are politically red, blue or purple, where the solar energy surge is unfolding, with its 3.7 GW of new capacity installed during 2014, may surprise you.

Then again, considering how grey-skied Germany has long been a global leader in solar, the fact the oft-rainy and cloudy east coast is gaining on California should not be too startling of a revelation. New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have long had ambitious solar programs as part of their renewable energy portfolio standards.

Solar, solar energy, solar power, utility scale solar, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, North Caroline, renewable energy portfolio standard
Watch for solar installations like this one to take root in North Carolina

Take New Jersey and its beloved shore, where, believe it or not, the state has more solar installations than tanning salons and Snooki sightings. Net metering is one reason why solar energy is taking off in the Garden State, but large-scale installations are on the uptick as well. The tiny state has already has 26 solar farms and more are on the drawing board. One of the more innovate programs in New Jersey, with its high population density, is a program led by Public Service Enterprise Group, which recently opened two new solar farms in what were once landfills.

New Jersey’s larger neighbor, New York, is not doing too shabby, either. While utility-scale solar is expanding at a slower rate, overall its growth is over 60% a year. But between a governor who is friendly to the industry and an aggressive renewable energy portfolio standard, New York is on its way. Even snowy western New York is part of the excitement with a mega solar panel manufacturing plant in Buffalo on the drawing board.

The Bay State’s solar industry is also growing, even though utility-scale solar is getting pushback from the state’s utilities. Net metering incentives have caught on so quickly that by some accounts Massachusetts ranks #4 in solar power generation. The state’s progressive energy policy has its origins in its renewable energy portfolio standard, which was one of the first in the U.S. to require a certain percentage of the state’s electricity to be sourced from renewables. Therefore Boston is only a natural to host the upcoming PV America annual conference next week instead of Silicon Valley or Los Angeles.

The real surprise, however, is in North Carolina. One of the most purple states has turned a tad more red after the most recent elections, but the solar energy sector is enjoying spectacular growth. The state claims that it has 3.3 GW of utiity-scale solar projects in the pipeline, not far behind California’s 3.8 GW future added capacity. At a first glance, North Carolina’s renewable energy program seems tepid: after all, the state has set a goal to generate as much electricity from poultry waste as it does from the sun.

But the state has told its utilities that it needs to start investing in solar, and to ramp up the building of solar farms quickly. The state’s major utilities must generate at least 12.5% of electricity from renewables by 2021, and a portion from that must be from solar. The clean technology sector is responding in kind, and has a natural base from which to operate considering the success of the Research Triangle that surrounds Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill: Solar Strata alone claims it has invested $1 billion in the state’s solar energy industry. The state ranks high in clean energy job creation, and future growth is encouraging. Residents and small businesses with solar installations recently scored a victory in a fight over net metering, which is just another step in encouraging more solar companies to invest in North Carolina. Add the large military presence in the state, and the armed forces’ rising interest in clean energy generation, and North Carolina could become the leading solar energy state in the U.S. very soon.

Watch the boom to continue as a recalcitrant Congress in Washington, DC, will assuredly let federal tax credits and incentives for solar energy lapse in two years. Nevertheless, solar keeps becoming more cost-effective and more affordable than fossil fuels—especially since the price of conventional energy is on an upward tick yet again.

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Written by Leon Kaye for cleantechnica.com.

 

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