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Dazzling Dozen US States Illuminate Path To Solar Energy Future

A solar energy revolution is dawning in America, led by twelve states whose progressive policies dominate the US solar industry and illuminate the path forward to a nationwide clean energy economy.

This “Dazzling Dozen” represent 85% of America’s total solar energy capacity despite being home to just 28% of the total US population and 21% of all US electricity consumption, according to Environment America’s “Lighting the Way: What We Can Learn From America’s Top 12 Solar States” report.

These 12 states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Vermont – have little in common demographically or politically, but have all used smart policies that if emulated by other states, could help America get 10% of its electricity from solar energy by 2030.


US Solar Energy Economy Growing With Installation Surge

The sun is definitely rising on the US solar industry, according to the report. America had 7,500 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity at the end of 2012, three times more than in 2010, and more than ten times 2007.

In fact, the US installed 1,300MW of solar capacity in just the fourth quarter of 2012, more than it had installed in its entire history up to 2010. America’s solar surge doesn’t seem to be slowing down either, with solar energy representing nearly half of all the new electric generation capacity installed across the country in the first half of 2013, becoming just the fourth country to pass the 10,000MW installed capacity mark.

A green jobs boom has accompanied the surge in new installations, and every one of the top ten states in solar jobs is a member of the Dazzling Dozen. More than 119,000 Americans now work in the solar energy industry, up 13% from the previous year. Over half of these workers are solar system installers, and employment in installation grew 17.5% in 2012 alone. While solar manufacturing jobs saw a significant lull on competition from cheap foreign imports in 2012, analysts predict employment will rebound in 2013.

Expanded solar energy also creates benefits beyond just economic growth. Solar PV produces 96% less pollution than coal-fired power and 91% less pollution than natural gas. Solar also improves grid reliability by reducing the need for long-distance transmission, placing local generation near demand, and generating the most power when demand is highest (the afternoon).

What’s The Secret To Solar Success?

So enough about the benefits of solar energy, and more about how these states have found success. Environment America outlines multiple approaches that have worked for the Dazzling Dozen, but highlight four especially important policies:

  • Net metering: 11 of the 12 states have strong net metering policies in place where consumers are paid the full retail electricity rate for any excess power they supply back to the grid. Net metering shortens the payback time and increases return on investment for small-scale solar systems.
  • Renewable energy standards: 11 of the 12 states have mandatory minimum requirements for the percentage of a utility’s power that must come from renewable sources, and 9 have specific solar carve-outs that set specific targets for solar power within the RES.
  • Interconnection: 10 of the 12 states have strong interconnection policies that cut through red tape for review and approval to help expedite the successful connection of solar projects to the grid.
  • Creative financing options: most of the states have different financing mechanisms in place to help pay for solar systems including solar leasing, on-bill financing, virtual net metering, third-party power purchase agreements, and property-assessed clean energy (PACE) financing.

Additional Policies For Governments To Adopt

Beyond the four best practices, “Lighting the Way” recommends other policies for all levels of government to adopt in order to achieve America’s full solar energy potential:

Toward A 100% Solar-Powered America?

While the Dazzling Dozen shine a light on solar energy’s success in America, we’ve still got a long way to go. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates rooftop solar PV could generate more than 20% of all US electricity demand, and maximizing utility-scale solar projects in rural areas could generate 70 times the entire amount of power used in America annually.

That’s why “Lighting the Way” matters – every one of our 50 states has the potential to generate more electricity from solar power than it uses in an average year. “The sky’s the limit on solar energy,” said Rob Sargent of Environment America. “The progress of these states should give us the confidence that we can do much more.”

Dazzling Dozen US States Illuminate Path To Solar Energy Future was originally published on: CleanTechnica. To read more from CleanTechnica, join over 30,000 others and subscribe to our RSS feed, follow us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our homepage.

Silvio Marcacci's picture

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Elias Hinckley's picture
Elias Hinckley on Jul 30, 2013 3:09 am GMT

Actually the majority of that Arizona solar is sold into California…so is it really a leader? Not sure empty space and transmission lines with capacity into a market with actual demand equals early clean energy adopter. 

Have a look at the string of attacks that the AZ Corporation Commission (its PUC) has taken against solar over the past year and it further undermines that #1 position.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 30, 2013 8:42 am GMT

The important sustainability metric for variable renewables is how much energy storage is being used (otherwise fossil fuel lock-in is the result).  An energy resource that is only available 20% of the time will have a very hard time displacing more than 25% of our fossil fuel use.

In this regard, all states are doing poorly, with no significant* new energy storage having come on line in decades.  A few states do have solar plants with storage under construction: I believe that the Abengoa Solana plant in Arizona and the Solar Reserve Cresent Dunes plants in Nevada are the only projects under construction that include storage (both as CSP).

* Lots of utilities will do demos with small battery banks for specialty applications.  These are very much more expensive than thermal energy storage for CSP, and the price is coming down very slowly.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Jul 30, 2013 6:28 pm GMT

The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station has been providing 20% of Arizona’s energy emissions free for over two decades now, and at a wholesale price of less than 7c/kWh. Add all of the wind and solar to that and I would say Arizona equals an early clean energy adopter.

Arizona Public Service has made legitimate claims that net-metering is a flawed program because grid users with variable solar PV undeniably raise the costs of electricity for all other users. By straightening out this issue early-on Arizona is a pioneer of clean-energy technologies, and customers will continue to benefit from much lower rates than CA while also providing a high per capita amount of cleanly generated electricity.

Elias Hinckley's picture
Elias Hinckley on Jul 31, 2013 12:31 pm GMT

Not sure that a nuclear plant that went into planning stages 40 years ago in response to a geopolitical/economic crisis is the basis for clean enegy leadership, but yes, it does remove a wedge from what is otheriwse a very carbon-intense energy mix.

The per-capita solar number is just simply misleading – becuase the facilities are built to sell power to California. The reality is very little support (and declining) to integrate new technologies, like solar, into the power mix. Add to that a consistent set of attacks on solar policies (I wrote about it months ago) and what you get doesn’t look like clean energy leadership at all.  

None of this would be more than misplaced bragging rights but for the fact that the price of power in AZ is on a very steady climb up especially as shut downs and new pollution control costs are realized from the coal generators in the four corners region. Add to that a very water-intensive energy portfolio between Palo Verde and the 40% coal mix and the economic case for solar as a long term value proposition gets even stronger. My point is really that Arizona should be a leader in per capita solar consumption.



George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Jul 31, 2013 5:44 pm GMT

Arizona should do what is best in regards to cost-effectively cutting emissions, and despite the fact that the state has perhaps the best solar resource, solar is not necessarily the best way to cut emissions. I read your article, and while I support renewable portfolio standards, I don’t see why Arizona has to so long as the result in future per capita emissions is comparable to other states. Inidividual states should have the latitude to decide on their own policy in this regard.

The best way to rapidly and dramatically cut emissions in the current economic climate is to replace coal with CCGTs, not invest an equal amount of money in a fractional capacity of solar or wind (nuclear is also much more expensive, though since plants last 60 years long term hedging of fossil fuel volatility is a favorable attribute). The ability for natural gas to rapidly replace coal plants has been demonstrated on a national scale – The US has reached its lowest level of emissions since 1990 by virtue of the expansion of natural gas generation and with little government intervention required. The opposite has been demonstrated in Germany where the country has spent over $130 billion on solar tarrifs and related subsidy in the past decade only to see overall emissions go up due to the reduction of some nuclear and addition of some required coal generation. Emissions reduction should be what this is all about, not preferential treatment of one technology regardless of cost to taxpayers, and as far as emissions reduction is concerned you get the most bang for your buck by switching to nat gas.

APS (if you are following the story) is taking a much more realistic approach toward solar integration in the longterm than the rest of the country. Interconnection of variable sources has a cost to grid operators and their customers, it simply needs to be accounted for. I believe California’s net-metering policy ends in 2016 (as does the Federal PTC), and there will no doubt be strong pushes from those who want to extend it and those who want to terminate it –  the future of the CA solar industry will be completely hinge on the outcome. At least Arizona is trying to get away from the boom and bust cycle that solar is continually on in virtually every other state. Compare CA’s utility rates, and emissions per capita to AZ. Preferential government treatment of solar just isn’t the most effective way to cut emissions at this time.

Silvio Marcacci's picture
Silvio Marcacci on Jul 31, 2013 6:20 pm GMT

I think it’s a bit naive to say natural gas is an effective option for those seeking to avoid boom-bust price cycles. Just a decade ago the US natgas price market was incredibly volatile and expensive. True, shale gas has changed all that, but the price of natgas is already on the upswing and coal is elbowing back into the mix. Add to that expected increases in domestic demand through the current generation buildout/transportation use, and international demand through LNG exports, and prices will almost certainly rise. 

Multiple reports predict grid parity for solar in the very near future, and obviously there’s zero cost of the commodity once installed. True, government subsidies are helping drive installations, but the shale revolution was also funded by government research grants and loans. This is just the evolution of energy generation, and Arizona is getting left behind in an industry it should be leading.

Elias Hinckley's picture
Elias Hinckley on Aug 1, 2013 2:34 pm GMT

2 points:

1) Rolling back programs b/c of inability to find a manageable path to integration isn’t leadership – it’s hiding behind an inappropriate definition of cost as an excuse to maintain status quo.

2) Might be time to rethink our 100+ year-old approach to power generation and distribution – the potential for real, economically viable approaches to really leverage technology to distribute our power system should be what utilities and commissioners pursue. 

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Aug 1, 2013 3:08 pm GMT

Your response here completely avoids the valid and substantiated points that I made:

1. Solar PV isn’t the most practical way (technically or economically) to cut emissions, even in a state like Arizona with abundant solar resource. So what is the justification to use taxpayer money for such an effort over say, funding natural gas or nuclear plants to replace coal?


2. People are rethinking distribution, but a smart grid that seamlessly compensates for large penetrations of variable generation by tapping into vast banks of storage and tailoring flexible demand accordingly will not come without a cost. In fact the cost will likely be enormous.

I take it you have done little research on the difficulties Germany has had in integrating renewables into their grid system on a large scale. Their total installed generation capacity is far greater than it needs to be due to required backup for renewables, and even when solar and wind are producing at peak there is a considerable amount of coal generation being ideled and releasing emissions because it needs to be able to rapidly ramp up to compensate for the unpredictability of renewable generation. In a regular grid such “spinning reserve” is needed to a much lesser extent to adjust for variable demand load. With the infrastructure we have currently renewables only serve to make the grid vastly less efficient.

Elias Hinckley's picture
Elias Hinckley on Aug 1, 2013 3:59 pm GMT

They are building solar for 90 cents a watt in Italy right now – we’re just behind cost the curve. Natural gas has huge back-end price volatility risk and emissions (and not at all clear that centralized gen is the best use for gas, it can be a fantastic distributed resource). New nuclear in the US inside of a decade is fantasy – not saying it should be, just that it is. 

We face enormous capital needs to maintain upgrade the existing grid and build in basic security – well north of $1 Trillion for the US. Real distribution, with integrated management tools combined with real and synthetic storage, then add in CHP – doesn’t fix the densest urban centers but captures a whole lot of US demand. Fully loaded price of a delivered kwh hour in the US (gen, delivery, emissions, health, etc.) is I suspect a pretty robust number and it’s going up, a lot – we could do an awful lot economically with tech we have right now inside that gap.

Germany certainly offers lessons – but I don’t see ‘do nothing’ as the core take away from the German transition

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Aug 1, 2013 5:07 pm GMT

Germany has the cheapest installed solar costs due to their streamlined permitting process and large experienced industry, and their installed costs still remain above $2/watt, so your Italy number is either fabricated or doesn’t reflect some large additional subsidy.

Utilities around the United States factor in fuel volatility projections when they make decisions to build plants. It is a big reason why 4 nuclear reactors are being built on the east coast right now (and yes they will be finished before the end of the decade) and why Florida Power and Light have been considering building a new nuclear plant for some time. But modern nuclear reactors will last 60 years and perhaps longer. It is questionable whether much of what is on the PV market will even meet its 25 year warranty:

And even if it does that still does not provide a strong enough case to build out solar capacity instead of a much larger amount natural gas capacity based on what we know about domestic fracking reserves today.

“Germany certainly offers lessons – but I don’t see ‘do nothing’ as the core take away from the German transition”

True, whether it is solar or not Arizona should certainly have a plan to phase out some of their coal (but ironically Germany hasn’t really made any headway in this area either), and admittedly I haven’t followed the policy closely enough to know if they do. But the fact remains that solar is not currently the only or even the best method to cut emissions, even in the sunniest of places. If you want to make a legitimate criticism of AZ energy policy, do it based on the fact that they burn a lot of coal, not in the fact that they aren’t giving handouts to the solar industry. 


Elias Hinckley's picture
Elias Hinckley on Aug 1, 2013 5:39 pm GMT

Assumed the reactors under construction didn’t need to be caveated for a nuclear engineer (?) – but those are the last. Simply not financable post Fukushima (and Votgle’s over-runs being pushed into rates won’t help with regulators providing a backstop 60 years other otherwise).

Not suggesting solar only by any stretch – rather a refocus on distributed production and managment. In any event, this was really about AZ not being a leader despite the per capita optics in the article (which was an exellent peice by Silvio I might add) – so enough for now on this, but I expect the subject will arise again soon in another context. Pleasure debating with you!


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