NREL: Solar Boomed But Needs More

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s comprehensive 2013 Renewable Energy Data Book is out, and its major takeaway seems quite shiny: Solar is leading the renewable energy race, and that’s probably not going to change.

“In 2013 in the United States, solar electricity was the fastest growing electricity generation technology, with cumulative installed capacity increasing 66 percent from the previous year,” NREL’s global energy statistics resource explained. “Between 2000 and 2013,” it added, “solar electricity generation worldwide increased by a factor of nearly 68.”

That’s the good news, but there is still plenty of bad news to go around.

Despite these solar advances, to say nothing of global warming’s existential threat, America’s overall energy consumption still increased nearly 2.5 percent — thanks to not just more use of renewables but also coal, which really should be on life support by now. (Petroleum and natural gas consumption slightly decreased.) It gets worse as NREL’s Data Book — a handy, infographics-heavy guide for policymakers, analysts and investors — goes on: Despite another boom year, solar still only “accounts for 0.5 percent of annual U.S. electricity generation,” even though “PV cumulative capacity increased 65 percent in 2013 alone.”

Meanwhile, American manufacturers like SunPower, First Solar and others can still only claim a measly 2 percent of the worldwide photovoltaics market. Asian manufacturers — “particularly Chinese,” NREL’s Data Book reminded — are dusting the U.S. with 86 percent of global PV production. China, the report noted as well, also leads the world in installed wind capacity, with 91 gigawatts installed by the end of 2013. It might be fair to argue that the unnecessary time and lethal emissions it takes Asia to mail solar panels and wind turbines to the U.S., at least philosophically speaking, more than offset any renewable energy gains America enjoys once it finally unwraps its cleantech solutions and plugs them in.

But this is what happens when you get to play with percentages, and when a nation’s renewable energy infrastructure goes from nothing to something more than nothing after the turn of a century anchored in dirty fuels.

There is a bit more good solar news to be had in NREL’s informative handbook, although much of it is unsurprising. California, of course, is the undisputed leader in PV and CSP cumulative and annual capacity, with Arizona owning second place outright. And there is more positive tidings to be had when it comes to renewable energy overall, which “grew to nearly 15 percent of total installed capacity and 13 percent of total electricity generation in the United States in 2013.”

But when comparatively tiny nations like Italy (17.6 gigawatts) and Japan (13.6 gigawatts) are simply clowning mammoth America (12.9 gigawatts) in installed solar electricity capacity, we have a serious problem, Houston. One can easily blink at the Data Book’s 2013 worldwide PV manufacturing pie chart and entirely miss America’s sad, little sliver. These are not good looks for a superpower wishing to be taken seriously on the solar revolution.

Which is, of course, why the major takeaway from NREL’s annual report is that solar is racing ahead of its renewable energy counterparts like wind, geothermal and biofuels. Because that’s what you have to do when you are so far behind, and the clock is ticking.

This article appeared at Solar Energy