25 Amazing Facts About Solar

In the past few years alone, the solar industry has gone from a clean energy source that required subsidies just to stay afloat to a full-fledged economic force. Solar energy is now passing grid parity in Europe, the southwestern U.S., South America, South Africa, and many other parts of the world. As costs fall, even more locations will find solar power to be economical, opening up a global electricity market worth over $1 trillion annually.

Here are just a few amazing statistics that show just how far solar energy has come and how big an opportunity it is for investors.

Solar is one of the fastest growing markets in the U.S. and a big provider of new jobs and new electrical generation. Image: SunPower. 

A global look at solar
To start, let's put the global solar industry in some perspective.

  • 37 GW: The number that global solar installations hit in 2013, according to the most recent data from Solarbuzz. That's enough to power over 6 million homes. 
  • 50 GW: How big the solar market is projected to be in 2014, 35% higher than last year.  
  • 12 GW: The amount of solar installed in China last year, followed by 9.5 GW in Japan, 4.4 GW in the U.S., and 3.3 GW in Germany.
  • 13.28 Euro cents/kW-hr: Germany's feed-in tariff rate for small rooftop systems, which is one-third of the average electricity cost for households of 29.2 Euro cents/kW-hr.
  • 9.19 Euro cents/kW-hr: Germany's feed-in tariff rate for large solar systems. 
  • 70 MW: The size of the largest merchant solar power plant (meaning the power will be sold to the grid at market prices) in the world, which SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR  ) is building in Chile. The project will be 20% owned by the oil giant Total (NYSE: TOT  ) , which also owns 66% of SunPower. 
  • 4 GW: The size of the solar project being planned in India, which would easily be the world's largest. Its estimated cost is $4.4 billion. 
  • $109 billion: The amount of money Saudi Arabia -- yes, the oil exporter -- plans to spend to meet its goal of a 100% renewable-energy future. The plan is beginning to take shape, starting with an expected 1 GW tender later this year. If that doesn't make oil companies nervous, I don't know what will.

SolarCity has brought solar to the masses, making the $0 down solar lease possible. Image: SolarCity.

A look at U.S. solar
The U.S. solar market has gone through many changes over the past decade and has been a political punching bag for years. But the industry now is at a sustainable cost structure, and even the pending reduction of the investment tax credit can't stop solar growth. Here's how far it's come in just a few years. (Note: Most of the following data is from the GTM Research/SEIA U.S. Solar Market Insights Report.)

  • 29%: The percentage of new electric capacity that installed solar accounted for in the U.S. in 2013, up from 10% a year before.
  • 41%: The growth in U.S. solar installations in 2013 to 4.75 GW.
  • 800,000: The number of homes that can be powered with the solar power installed in 2013 alone. 
  • $2.59: The per-watt weighted average cost to install solar power in the U.S. in Q4 2013, down 15% from a year earlier.
  • 34%: The amount residential solar installations have fallen in cost from Q1 2010 to Q4 2013 in the U.S., to $4.59 per watt.
  • 59%: The amount utility-scale solar projects have fallen in cost in the same timeframe, to $1.96 per watt. 
  • 55%: The percentage of of all U.S. residential solar installed in California in Q4, up from 43% in Q1 of 2010. No doubt, California dominates solar. 
  • 142,698: The number of people employed in the solar industry as of last November, up 19.9% from a year earlier, or 10 times the national average growth rate.  
  • 99%-plus: The amount the cost of solar panels has fallen since 1978, when RGS Energy sold the first retail solar panel for $100 per watt. Today, a standard solar panel costs around $0.65 per watt.  
  • 3 minutes: How quickly SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY  ) recently said it's signing a new solar customer -- every three minutes in the 14 states it operates in. 

An aerial image of Solar Star, which at 579 MW will be the world's largest solar plant when completed. Image: SunPower. 

Solar is already big business
The solar industry has gotten a bad rap after the failure of high-profile companies like Solyndra, but it's a huge business that very successful investors are betting big on. 
  • 579 MW: The size of the largest solar power plant in the world, currently being built by SunPower. When completed, this single project will provide enough power for 400,000 homes.
  • $2.5 billion: The amount Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary MidAmerican Energy paid for SunPower's 579 MW Solar Star project. 
  • 377 MW: The size of the Ivanpah concentrated solar system, which NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG  ) , Google, BrightSource Energy, and Bechtel recently completed. It is the largest solar concentrator in the world and will provide enough power for 140,000 homes.
  • 4.8% and 4.59%: The yields on SolarCity's first two securitization deals. Solar power is becoming big business in the financial industry, and in the past six months, SolarCity has completed the industry's first two securitization deals for $54.4 million and $70.2 million, with interest rates of 4.80% and 4.59%, respectively. 
  • $5.7 billion: Solar financing is just getting started, and GTM Research predicts that the residential market will see financing grow from $1.3 billion in 2012 to $5.7 billion by 2016. This is big business, folks. 

Putting the potential power of solar in perspective
Still skeptical of solar energy? Think it'll only be a bit player in our energy future? Take a look at these numbers.

  • 600%: The percentage of the United States' electricity demand you could generate if you filled the Mojave Desert -- which is 25,000 square miles and covers about 0.66% of the United States' land mass -- with SunPower's most efficient production solar panels. Put another way, this one desert could generate more than enough energy to power the world.
  • 59.1%: The amount of Germany's energy that came from renewable energy on a sunny day late last August. Of that amount, 11.2% came from solar, and as GTM Research cheekily pointed out, the grid did not explode.  

Even car companies are now looking at solar as a way to generate power, as shown by this Ford concept car using SunPower cells. Image: SunPower.

Investing in solar isn't as scary as it used to be
In 2012, solar manufacturers took it on the chin as oversupply hit the market and module prices dropped like a rock. But some manufacturers and installers are now separating themselves and provide incredible opportunities for investors.

Investors can get solar exposure through manufacturers like SunPower or First Solar, which also build projects, or through downstream installers like SolarCity. There are also ways to play the owners of these projects, which are collecting cash for 20 years or more from them -- companies like NRG Energy or its new offshoot, NRG Yield, which is one of the first yieldcos, which are companies that own solar projects and pay a dividend with the cash flow. 

Solar is a growing business, and I hope these statistics put both the progress and potential for this industry in perspective. The growth cycle for solar has just begun, and investors who get in early can ride the wave for the next few decades. 

Everywhere you look, the U.S. energy industry is growing
What's amazing about the progress in solar, wind, oil, and gas is that it was only a decade ago that the U.S. was worried about energy imports. Today, the situation has been turned on its head and all of these energy sources are bringing the country close to energy independence. To learn more about how the U.S. has become and energy power, check our special report highlighting an energy investment the IRS has made extremely attractive. Don't miss out on this timely opportunity; click here to access your report -- it's absolutely free. 


Read/Post Comments (24) | Recommend This Article (34)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2014, at 4:53 PM, solarenthusiast wrote:

    These trends certainly look promising for the future of solar power. I for one agree with Travis' overall thesis and have already seen great returns from SunPower and other solar investments.

    When it comes to replacing oil, well, some internet debaters insist that EROEI is the key figure, and that it isn't high enough for solar. I can't find EROEI figures for solar though- maybe Travis Hoium can point me toward that?

    Also, what is the average efficiency of solar panels in Germany? While they have had success with their program, my understanding is that they are using mostly older equipment and that new adopters could expect even better results than Germany's. But again, I'm having trouble finding those figures.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 12:04 AM, JosephNYC wrote:

    I am leasing my solar panels in NYC. It was $0 downpayment, they took care of all the paperwork and provide full maintenance. My panels are producing more electricity than we are consuming. They provide a "performance guarantee", so if panels produce less than promised, they write a check for the difference. They provide a free quote without a site visit, they see your roof through Google Earth. If you move, they will move the panels for free or you can transfer the lease to the new owners. They panels are fully insured, free of charge. They also provide warranty for the roof against any leaks. They do everything, I just pay my lease. You can go to www.sungevity.com You can use referral code 94755 so that you get $500 gift card.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 2:29 AM, Joefacc2244 wrote:

    Leases are the latest Wall Street rip off. You pay for 20 years and you still don't own the solar system. You don't get the tax credit either. If you buy the system outright, you can pay it off in 10 years and receive near free electricity for the next 40 years. You get the 30% tax credit too!!!

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 2:38 AM, kdavis860 wrote:

    I'll be amazed when somebody can add to the list "The solar industry is competitive enough that the government was able to drop all subsidies and mandates and collect from them the same taxes they do from other product sales."

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 3:46 AM, enhancedcortex wrote:

    Leases are one of the most expensive ways to have solar on your roof. They do provide full maintenance, but you're the one that's overpaying for that maintenance several times over because of the leasing company's much higher pricing.

    And as for the leasing company's performance guaranty, you could buy nearly two more solar systems for the cost of a $0 down solar lease and triple your performance if you purchased your system instead of leasing it.

    And any dealer can offers a free quote without a site visit. The bottom line is that nothing that the leasing companies claim is free, is free.

    You can be sure that you're paying for these supposed free services many times over because of their much higher pricing. In fact, whether you lease or PPA or purchase, if you're paying more than $2.20 per watt installed, after the 30% ITC in today's much lower priced market, then you're probably paying too much.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 12:26 PM, speculawyer wrote:

    Self-installed roof-top solar is a much better investment than just about anything else. Guaranteed investment return.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 12:36 PM, speculawyer wrote:

    I'll be amazed when someone announces a fossil fuel that doesn't fill the air I have to breathe with dangerous toxins.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 12:54 PM, cosmo00011 wrote:

    Hi Everyone! My name is Kris Kuehl. I am merely one man. I want to give you my invention that you can make too. There's no patent on it. First one to get a patent shall be the inventor. I just want the world to accept my gift for free. It only cost me about 777.00 dollars to make. It generates free electricity forever, without the need for oil, gasoline, friction, pollution, a supercollision, NOR IRAN. Here's how:

    1. A 12amp car battery from wal-mart

    2. A power inverter to plug step 3 into it.

    3. A skilsaw circular saw that spins at least 3600 rpms. If the powersaw is too loud, try www.leesonmotors.com to get a quiet electric motor but you'll need to get an online 40amp tractor battery to power it, and it would have to be pulley driven, unless we can all convince leeson motors to bore a 5/8 inch thread hole in the axle.

    4. A 5/8 inch axle bolt.

    5. A generator head from www.northerntool.com part no. 165913 or 165928 for dryers and house needs.

    6. A battery recharger from wal-mart.

    Simply link those components together in that order and back into the battery, and everyone shall have infinite free electricity. PLEASE visit my website to see video evidence. I also have other SIGNIFICANT scientific discoveries there. Bless you, and I hope you have a very casual day!

    Sincerely,

    Kris Kuehl

    www.silvermix.org

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 2:45 PM, EarlD wrote:

    Total BS when it says 'Today, a standard solar panel costs around $0.65 per watt. ' In today's market it's more like $2.00 a Watt.' Makes you wonder about all of the other numbers that they just pulled out of their....

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 3:17 PM, TMFFlushDraw wrote:

    @EarlD

    I'm going off what public companies are reporting and what's being reported in industry publications. Some companies are reporting sale prices lower than that.

    Below are a couple of sources.

    http://media.corporate-ir.net/media_files/IROL/21/210622/SOL...

    http://www.pv-tech.org/news/npd_solarbuzz_yingli_green_canad...

    These are prices paid by large installers or large buyers like SolarCity, RGS Energy, Vivint, etc. You're not going to see the same prices at Home Depot because they don't have any volume or channel efficiencies. They also carry higher cost suppliers.

    Travis Hoium

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 3:40 PM, sunweb wrote:

    Solar and wind capturing devices are not alternative energy sources. For the renewable devices – wind, photovoltaices, solar hot water, hot air panels - the sun and wind are there, are green, are sustained. The devices used to capture the sun and wind’s energy are an extension of the fossil fuel supply system. There is a massive infrastructure of mining, processing, manufacturing, fabricating, installation, transportation and the associated environmental assaults. There would be no sun or wind capturing devices with out this infrastructure. This infrastructure is not green, sustainable, or renewable.

    I invite you to view these essays.

    This essay has diagrams and pictures of how we get copper, aluminum, glass, black chrome – the chemicals, heavy machinery, and industrial processes that are necessary to make the devices to capture the energy of the sun and wind.

    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/12/machines-making-machine...

    and

    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2014/03/reality-again.html

    and

    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2014/02/solar-investing.html

    And even if you could get around the environmental degradation, the low ERoEI and could amass enough extra energy to reproduce the capturing devices and their equipment, then how about the rest of the STUFF of high tech, high energy society?

    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/10/to-make-light-bulb.html

    and

    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-small-fan.html

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 4:49 PM, ocpw wrote:

    Perhaps one of my favorite arguments used by coal producers to justify cutting the tops off mountains to get to the coal was for them to claim that Americans prefer flat land.

    That for me is the nice thing about solar. You don't need to dig a hole in the ground to find it.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 8:42 PM, jferristx wrote:

    @EarlID

    I can get a pallet (30) solar panels, 275 watt panels, for less than 10K. Or about $1.25 per watt.

    It took me less than 60 seconds of web search to find more than one supplier at that price or less.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 9:35 PM, solarenthusiast wrote:

    @kdavis860: solar power is at or near the point where it is price competitive with other power sources without subsidies. Travis cites the merchant solar farm in Chile. Here's an example of an American utility:

    http://www.bizjournals.com/denver/blog/earth_to_power/2013/0...

    The relevant quote:

    "He also said this round of bidding is the first time the utility has seen solar projects that are cost-competitive with natural gas-generated power.

    “This is the first time that we’ve seen, purely on a price basis, that the solar projects made the cut — without considering carbon costs or the need to comply with a renewable energy standard — strictly on an economic basis,” Eves said."

    Isn't that amazing? ;)

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 10:12 PM, ban566 wrote:

    i am using solar at my house got a 400w grid and batteries for emergency back up power

    and i just ordered a 12v water heater element and 2 panels to produce all of my hot water with solar

    starting small going to see if it keeps up and if not will order a second heater and set of solar panels

    i am not braking the bank but am learning allot about my options and will expand my system when i can

    looking at a 1kw grid tie next

    and so fare have only spent about $1400 and my last electric will was $54

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2014, at 11:42 PM, gsned57 wrote:

    @earlid. You can get consumer panels at .73 cents per watt. http://www.ecobusinesslinks.com/surveys/free-solar-panel-pri...

    Your 2$ number is for an installed residential system.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:13 AM, xetn wrote:

    You forgot to mention that solar would not exist without subsidies, or the fact that solar is not really green, because the manufacturing process is very toxic. I know this personally because I used to be in the business that manufactured the equipment that makes solar cells. Just think of all the birds that are killed every year by wind farms, and the noise pollution that they cause.

    The problem with solar of all kinds is it only focuses on what is seen, but ignores what is unseen. Without government subsidies, solar would not be an economic alternative. The other problem with solar is it doesn't produce when there is on light or wind. Would you want to have surgery when the hospital used only solar power? At best, solar is only an adjunct supply; not a replacement.

    What everyone refuses to accept is nuclear energy using Thorium instead of uranium.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 8:26 AM, cmalek wrote:

    While your numbers may look impressive, Travis, solar still provides only a miniscule part of world's power needs. The efficiency of solar panels would have to improve by couple orders of magnitude before solar became a major player in providing energy.

    Once installed, solar panels do provide green energy but how green is the panel production process? (starting with obtaining the raw materials and ending with an installed panel) Does the production process consume less or more energy than the panels produce over their lifetime?

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 9:47 AM, toozie wrote:

    Solar electricity provides a small fraction of the world's needs, as you say. But the growth rate is high and will remain high for many years to come.

    The energy payback time (EPBT) for photovoltaic systems ranges from about 1 year to about 3 years - shorter for thin film technology such as CdTe, and slightly longer for crystalline Si technology.

    No hospital in the developed world would ever rely on solar and wind exclusively; the grid is a complex network of supply plants and consumers. Energy storage will gradually smooth out many bumps, but until then even now utilities are collaborating with weather forecasting to develop solar and wind energy forecasts that will allow for load balancing in fossil fueled plants based on g as and coal.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 10:22 AM, stric7 wrote:

    The author ignores some important information. Solar is an intermittent resource. When cloud cover causes irradiance to drop by half, or more, in a ten minute, or less, time frame and your 500MW plant is now producing only 250MW that power has to be made up from a different resource.

    Right now most solar plants in the US are base loads so other resources have to make up for fluctuations in output. This is easily done when solar makes up a relatively small portion of generation in an area. If I was building a conventional power plant and I had to run my plant at half capacity the majority of the time but be ready to ramp up to support solar how would I pay for my plant and workers' salaries? Why would I be willing to take a lower rate of return to mask solar's problems?

    I'm not saying solar isn't wonderful but there are costs and trade offs ignored in this article. It is just a little too rah rah.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 10:41 AM, TMFFlushDraw wrote:

    @toozie and @cmalek

    I'm not suggesting that solar is suddenly going to provide 100% of the world's energy or that there aren't technological challenges. I wrote the article to point out just how far solar energy has come in a very short amount of time and how fast it's improving.

    Look at where solar energy was 5 years ago, where it is today, and where it will be 5 years from now. The challenges you bring up are technology challenges and as the industry grows money will follow into research to solve these problems. Battery storage is already being tested and if we look out 10 to 20 years I think there will be a way to store massive amounts of solar energy to provide a consistent base load.

    The final answers don't necessarily exist today but you can see them on the horizon and the trajectory of the solar industry is undeniably positive.

    Travis Hoium

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 3:09 PM, damilkman wrote:

    stric7 makes a great point. There will be a point where the low hanging fruit of what solar can do is reached and then we hit a stopping point. Not everyone will be able to make money pumping up the grid if it is useless excess. Germany is already at this position where they have to pay to get rid of the excess capacity on sunny and windy days. Too much electricity is the same as too little.

    For solar to ultimately be viable I believe it needs to be partnered with a chemical storage method. For example instead of pumping excess electricity into a grid charge up a battery or do a chemical process like Oxygen Hydrogen separation. Then when it gets cloudy or it is night time, leverage the battery or a fuel cell. I'm not so keen with a massive capacitor or several thousand pounds of lithium batteries sitting in a home. So a fuel cell alternative may work out better.

    Another knee jerk thought is could we store enough kinetic energy in flywheels that are rotating at high velocity. But again would we want to sit in the vicinity of a several dozen wheels rotating at 30K rpm?

    In summary renewables have to be sustainable and give a base load to be a real replacement. Its a nice hedge, but no more without that.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 3:35 PM, SunDevilDon wrote:

    @Kris, One word .... thermodynamics.

    Have a Nice Day!

  • Report this Comment On April 26, 2014, at 3:43 PM, cmalek wrote:

    @Travis:

    You should recognize this old saw: "Past performance is no guarantee of future results." At one time wind power was going like gangbusters, with environmentalists pushing for it in a big way. Then it was discovered that most of the best places for wind farms were right smack in the middle of bird migration routes and many birds got killed. Now the enviro crowd is against wind farms. The dark side of solar still hasn't revelead itself but one of these days it will.

    I never said "100%". You are just setting up a straw man. Maybe instead of "major player" I should have said "significant player", let's say 10%-15% of world's power. While the numbers you cite sound impressive by themselves, when put in the context of overall power generation, solar is still a boutique method.

    "I wrote the article to point out just how far solar energy has come in a very short amount of time and how fast it's improving. "

    But you somehow omitted to mention how far it still has to go to be considered more than a novelty.

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