In 2013, two lines intersected. They swapped places. One line followed the meteoric decline in solar-powered electricity. The other measured the steadily rising cost of retail electricity. In 2013, the first ducked under the second. For the first time since French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photoelectric effect, the cost of solar electricity was less than utility power.
The United States bursts with mind-blowing figures and factoids about solar power. In 2012, the industry grew by 41 percent, a record-breaking performance it broke yet again the following year. The costs of solar panels – industry manufacturers call them “modules” – plummeted by 80 percent between 2008 and 2013. On December 1, 2014, Soitec scientists announced a new record in solar cell conversion efficiency: 46 percent.
But no statistic is more important than the first. It anchors the promise. It transforms idealism into capitalism. In 2011, nationwide, homeowners paid an average of $17,056 for a residential solar system. In the years since, that number has dropped, with most of the upfront price due to “soft” costs like installation, maintenance and financing. In some places, like California and New York and Louisiana, the cost of a solar power system was $10,000 or less in 2011.
Yet the costs of the system paled to its potential savings. A California homeowner who installed a solar panel system in 2011 would immediately save $143 every month. Over 20 years, that number would mushroom into a whopping $34,260. Nothing, not even the S&P 500 market index, could promise better growth.
Homeowners without the capital to upfront a solar energy system have turned to 20-year leases, home equity loans and Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) to foot the bill instead. In fact, about 66 percent of new residential solar systems are owned by third parties. Industry experts estimate that a solar lease will save customers an immediate 10-30 percent on their energy bills.
America continues to compete with other countries in the development of solar panels and the accompanying industry. A new solar system is installed approximately every four minutes. The nation boasts more than 10 gigawatts of cumulative capacity, one of only four countries in the world that can make such a claim, and in 2013, the United States, for the first time in 15 years, installed more photovoltaic energy systems than Germany, the previous world leader.
Edmond Becquerel would be proud.