Sunny Opportunities

Despite a struggling economy, solar energy has become one of the fastest growing industries in America. The total size of the U.S. solar market grew 67 percent from $3.6 billion in 2009 to $6 billion in 2010, according to the “U.S. Solar Market Insight: Year-in-Review 2010,” published by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research. This astonishing growth has continued in 2011. During the first quarter of 2011, grid-connected solar photovoltaic (PV) installations grew 66 percent over the same period in 2010.

The solar industry has also proven to be a new jobs engine. More than 100,000 Americans are directly employed in the solar industry and this number is expected to grow, according to The Solar Foundation’s “Solar Jobs Census 2010.”

Construction contractors across the solar supply chain are at the forefront of this market opportunity with diverse growth in all three solar market segments – residential, commercial and utility. Contrary to popular belief, this growth is happening all across the country, not just in California. In fact, the mid-Atlantic region spanning from North Carolina up to New York represented a larger share of the total solar market in 2010 than California. It always catches people by surprise when I tell them New Jersey is the second largest state market for solar in the country.

The residential solar market is seeing growth that coincides with rapid cost declines for end-users of solar energy. Companies like SolarCity, SunRun and SunPower are bringing solar to homeowners on the coasts with innovative new solar leasing options. Leasing allows homeowners to go solar while avoiding the upfront investment cost. The solar company owns and maintains the equipment installed on the roof and sells electricity to the homeowner at a rate guaranteed to be lower than the rate offered by their local utility. This and other financing models make going solar as easy as buying a new car, offering new opportunities for construction contractors as solar penetrates even more markets across the country.

Commercial Applications

The fastest growing market segment for solar is commercial property. This encompasses small businesses, large retail chains, municipal buildings such as schools and government offices, sports stadiums and warehouses.

The rooftops of these buildings often offer ideal locations for solar. Imagine that empty roof space on top of your local grocery store becoming a power plant that helps reduce electricity costs – this is what we are seeing across the country.

Construction is beginning on what will be the largest rooftop solar installation in North America. When completed, the Gloucester Marine Terminal installation in New Jersey will have a generation capacity of 9 megawatts, enough to power 1,500 homes each year.

Big box retailers also are seeing how solar can increase their bottom line. Kohl’s already has installed solar power systems on more than 100 retail locations. Each of the Kohl’s solar installations provide at least 40 percent of the facility’s power and the investment in solar has already saved the company $50 million. 

Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, has set ambitious renewable energy goals to cut electricity costs at more than 8,400 retail locations, including adding solar power at its  California and Arizona.

Utility Market Growth

The utility market also continues to grow as major projects begin construction and come online across the country. These are typically larger projects that provide electricity on the utility side of the meter.

One such project is Abengoa Solar’s Solana Generating Station near Gila Bend, Ariz. Once completed, this project will provide electricity to Arizona Public Service ratepayers in and around Phoenix. Constructing the facility will require about 80,000 tons of steel, enough to build another Golden Gate Bridge. The project will create more than 1,600 construction jobs at the peak of the three-year construction period, not to mention a supply chain that currently spans 29 companies in 22 states.

Solana is just one of many examples. There are currently more than 1,500 megawatts of utility-scale solar power under construction, enough to power 300,000 homes. Another 26 gigawatts of utility-scale projects are under development in the preconstruction phase – enough energy for 5 million homes.

A Bright Forecast

All of this growth is putting the industry in reach of its goal to install 10 gigawatts of solar each and every year by 2015. A major part of that is continuing to make solar cost competitive in more markets. The installed cost of solar power came down an incredible 20 percent in 2010 and as the industry continues to scale up, solar power is becoming accessible to more customers. 

As the industry grows, so does the demand for solar workers, and the construction industry is poised to participate in this growth. Besides new solar generation projects, the industry has stepped up domestic manufacturing of components. There are 58 manufacturing plants under development today and many expanding current facilities. Recent examples are the Suntech America plant in Phoenix, the SolarWorld plant in Hillsboro, Ore., and the Wacker, Hemlock Semiconductor and Sharp Solar plants in Tennessee.  

There are many educational opportunities that can help construction professionals transfer their skills to the growing solar industry. The Solar Energy Industries Association provides access to invaluable networking, educational resources, project request for proposals, job listings, information on certification programs and more. Our growing network of regional and state chapters focuses on local solar issues and markets. It’s an exciting time to be a part of such a vibrant, growing industry.

The long-term forecast has never been brighter for U.S. solar energy. Now is the time to come on board and ensure that your business is competitive in this increasingly important sector of our nation’s economy.

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