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Solar Energy Takes Over the Grid

Solar energy accounted for 100% of new power generation built in the U.S. in the month of March. Over 44 MW of solar capacity from seven projects in California, Nevada, New Jersey, Hawaii, Arizona, and North Carolina were added to the grid last month, and that doesn't include distributed solar, which goes on commercial and residential rooftops. Those sources likely added dozens of MW to the grid as well.

One month can be an aberration in new power generation, but the trend of solar accounting for a large percentage of new generation is unmistakable. According to FERC, about 30% of utility-scale capacity added in the first quarter came from solar. Again, this doesn't account for distributed solar so it's possible that solar accounted for around 50% of total electricity capacity added so far in 2013.

The companies making it happen
When you talk about building utility-scale projects there are two major contributors, First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR  ) and SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR  ) . Both companies are currently constructing projects that are hundreds of MW in size, accounting for a majority of the new generation in the U.S. right now.

While utility-scale solar is hot right now its future may not be as bright. The projects being built right now were contracted years ago and utilities don't have the appetite for more of them. Today, distributed solar is where we can find consistent growth.

SunPower is a big player in distributed solar through its lease program and high-efficiency modules, but SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY  ) is the largest installer in the country. The company is yet to be profitable but it is building a large network of installations that pay predictable cash flows month after month. Eventually, this should lead to a highly profitable business for investors.

Foolish bottom line
Solar power is a growing piece of our energy pie and investors who play it right can make a lot of money during its growth trend.

One way to play the market is with First Solar, who has made some moves recently that change its future for the better. If you're looking for continuing updates and guidance on the company whenever news breaks, The Motley Fool has created a brand-new report that details every must know side of this stock. To get started, simply click here now.

Read/Post Comments (10) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2013, at 3:59 PM, drixnot wrote:

    Been saying for a long time that solar is cheaper than other sources... locally the power company is setting up solar collectors everywhere there is cheap land.

    The land is the most expensive part.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2013, at 5:52 PM, rand49er wrote:

    "Solar power is a growing piece of our energy pie and investors who play it right can make a lot of money during its growth trend." But, nearly all solar energy is subsidized by taxpayers, so this is encouraging people to take money out of the pockets of taxpayers. As a matter of fact, the biggest producer of solar panels in the world, Suntech Power Holdings, has filed for bankruptcy, so this whole article is a fraud.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2013, at 6:16 PM, sagehopper wrote:

    And the nest question would much of the entire amount of energy generated right now, comes from wind and sun?

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2013, at 6:28 PM, TMFFlushDraw wrote:


    About 5.5% of generating capacity in the U.S. is wind or solar. They have lower capacity factors than other sources so about 3% of power comes from these sources.

    They're growing quickly though with solar installations up 76% last year.

    Travis Hoium

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2013, at 6:55 PM, rednecktrash wrote:

    Solar is good for 16 watts per square foot. 44MW= 44,000,000 watts. 44,000,000/16= 2,750,000 square feet. 2,750,000/5280= 520.83 square miles of solar panel, One small natural gas or coal fired power plant can crank out 44 megawatts easily! my question is why?

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2013, at 7:55 PM, Chishiki wrote:

    Currently solar cost more per watt but the industry has been getting closer and closer to be an economical replacement.

    I'm kind of curious to see what the efficiency of the new cesium coated solar will be.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2013, at 9:38 PM, golabkr wrote:


    1 square mile= 5280x5280=27 878 400 square feet

    you only need 1/10th square mile to produce 44MW

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2013, at 10:52 PM, bugmenot wrote:

    Solar is very expensive and very dirty energy. The expense is multi-factored: about 100 times more land than a nuke plant and the need for a fossil plant running at 60% so that it can take over when a cloud passes by. Chicago hasn't seen much sun in a couple weeks. Good thing they have nukes. Then there is dirty. Why is solar so dirty? Because more the mining and production process to create solar cells releases more CO2 than a coal power plant over many years. Wind energy is also dirty because of the need to mine precious minerals to build the turbines. The news media fails to tell the true story and the people are fooled. And wind also requires that 60% back up plant. Yes, green energy requires an online fossil plant running at over half of its capacity! This is what you call stupid. Put in a nuke and you are good to go.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2013, at 11:33 PM, bixtu wrote:

    @bugmenot, PV pays back the manufacturing in the first year of operation now. Silicon processing is very efficient now, the ore is silica.. sand.

    You want to live near a uranium mine with a tailings pile???

    @Rednecktrash, I'm curious, now that you realize it's about 5000 times better than you were originally thinking, have your reconsidered your viewpoint on this? For me what made it real was seeing 5-10A on a clampmeter on a test array.. about 10 years ago.

  • Report this Comment On April 14, 2013, at 12:58 AM, mikesters wrote:

    @Rednecktrash, golabkr, bugmenot, and bixtu. Let me see if I can straighten this out, Current panels produce about 8-10 watts per square foot, under optimum conditions not 16. Optimum is midday sun, under clear skies, during summer months. Problem is these conditions don't exist most of the time. Solar radiance drops off dramaticaly a few hours either side of midday peak energy, due to the atmosphere. So you only get this energy a fraction of the hours in a day. The other problem is the off summer months, during the winter these levels will be substantially lower. Doing a rough estimate, considering all these factors it would take about two and a half to three square miles to produce the equiv. of a 44MW plant running continuously. Bugmenot is correct about those other issues though. You will need to have other backup plants to make it work, to fill in the gaps. Their are a multitude of other problems also, you will need a lot of manpower to maintain this plant, the panels need to be cleaned frequently along with other maintenance tasks. I will stop here so you can ponder this further yourselves. In my opinion, solar will need to be far more efficient than it currently is before it is really practical.

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