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Certrec's Solar Market Research

The History of Solar Energy in the United States

The ability to generate usable energy from light was first demonstrated in 1839. A young physicist named Edmon Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, which is a process that produces a voltage or electric current when exposed to light or radiant energy. However, the process of how light produces electricity wasn’t understood until Albert Einstein wrote a paper explaining the photoelectric effect in 1905.

In 1954, engineers from Bell Laboratories announced the invention of the first practical silicon solar cell. The New York Times called it “the beginning of a new era.” While solar power remained too costly for commercial use, NASA and the United States military and government used the technology to power satellites and launch spacecraft. 

The federal government’s oil price controls of the early 1970s, followed by the Arab oil embargo of 1973 created an energy crisis in the United States which pushed the federal government to develop alternatives to gas and oil. Congress passed five energy bills in 1974, two of which cited solar power as a potential solution to the energy crisis.

Declining oil production and rising oil imports throughout the early 2000s helped lead to the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct), the first omnibus legislation dealing with energy policy since 1992. In addition to tax credits and grants, the government continues to heavily subsidize the industry with research and development, commercialization, and regulatory support. 

Nowadays, solar power remains highly affordable. There are several incentives available at the state and federal levels to support the advancement of solar. 

How do Solar Panels Work?

Solar radiation is light that is emitted by the sun. Solar technologies capture this radiation and turn it into useful forms of energy. There are two forms of energy generated from the sun for our use - electricity and heat. Both are generated through the use of solar panels, which range in size from residential rooftops to ‘solar farms’ stretching over acres of rural land. 

Solar panels are usually made from silicon installed in a metal panel frame with a glass casing. When photons, or particles of light, hit the thin layer of silicon on the top of the solar panel, they knock electrons off the silicon atoms. This PV charge creates an electric current (specifically, direct current or DC) which is captured by the wiring in solar panels. This DC electricity is then converted to alternating current (AC) by an inverter. 

Solar power only requires some level of daylight to harness the sun’s energy. That said, the rate at which solar panels generate electricity does vary depending on the amount of direct sunlight and the quality, size, number, and location of panels in use. 

Some confuse Solar PV and Solar Thermal Panels. The energy source is the same, but the technology in each system is different. Solar PV panels generate electricity while solar thermal panels generate heat.


Solar Market Data

According to SEIA In the last decade alone, solar has experienced an average annual growth rate of 33%. Thanks to federal policies like the Solar Investment Tax Credit, rapidly declining costs, and increasing demand across the private and public sector for clean electricity, there are now more than 130.9 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity installed nationwide. This is enough to power 23 million homes. 

The cost to install solar has dropped by more than 60% over the last decade. However, recent shipping constraints and other supply chain challenges have led to price increases across the U.S. solar industry. 

Solar has ranked first in new electric capacity additions for the last 9 years. Solar’s increasing competitiveness against other technologies has allowed it to quickly increase its share of total U.S. electrical generation from just 0.1% in 2010 to over 4%. 

As demand for solar continues to grow, new state entrants are grabbing an increasing share of the national market. Only about 1% of commercial electricity demand is served by on-site solar. So, there remains significant opportunity for growth.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, by Q3 of 2022 the five states with the most solar capacity installed are:

  • California (37,086 MW)
  • Texas (15,079 MW)
  • Florida (9,539 MW)
  • North Carolina (8,018 MW)
  • Arizona (5,984 MW)


Ten Largest Solar Farms in the United States

10. Techren Solar Project

The Techren Solar Project is a 400 MW solar photovoltaic power plant near Boulder City, Nevada. The project is co-located with several other large solar power projects in Eldorado Valley. The project was originally founded and developed by the SECP and further developed by 174 Power Global, the U.S. subsidiary of Hanwha Group. The project consisted of two phases, both units producing a 1.5kVdc maximum system voltage standard. 

9. Mesquite Solar Project

The Mesquite Solar Project is a 400 MW photovoltaic power plant in Arlington, Maricopa County, Arizona. It is owned by Sempra Generation. It was constructed in 3 phases using more than 2.1 million crystalline silicon solar panels made by Suntech Power. 

8. Springbok Solar Farm

The Springbok Solar Farm is a 443 MW photovoltaic power station in the northwestern Mojave Desert in Kern County, California. The facility was developed and constructed by 8minuteenergy Renewables in three phases. This project was able to generate enough renewable energy to serve more than 152,000 households. 

7. Permian Energy Center

Owned by Ørsted, Permian Energy Center is a utility-scale solar plus battery storage project with an installed capacity of 460 MWAC located in Andrews County, Texas. It is located on a 3,600 acre site alongside existing oil and gas installations and is planned to supply West Texas’ growing demand for electricity. The project has 1.3 million solar panels and is anticipated to generate enough clean energy to power more than 80,000 American homes. 

6. Roadrunner Solar

Located in Upton County, the Roadrunner Solar Plus Storage Project is the largest operational solar project in Texas. Construction began in February of 2019 with plans for the full project to be approximately 2,770 acres. This project is anticipated to generate 1.2 TWh annually while avoiding the emission of over 800,000 tons of CO2 per year. The battery storage capacity of this project is 57 MW. 

5. Desert Sunlight Solar Farm

The Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is a 550-megawatt photovoltaic power station. It’s about six miles north of Desert Center, California, in the Mojave Desert. The project uses about 8.9 million cadmium telluride modules by First Solar. The project took place in two phases, phase I having a capacity of 300 MW and Phase II having a capacity of 250 MW. A 230 MW battery storage power station was added in 2022. 

4. Topaz Solar Farm

Topaz Solar Farm is a 550 MW photovoltaic power station in San Luis Obispo County, California. The $2.5 billion project includes 9 million CdTe photovoltaic modules manufactured by U.S. company - First Solar. The plant’s power would be generated during the middle of the day when the demand for electricity is much higher than at night. Pacific Gas and Electric will buy the electricity produced under a 25-year power purchase agreement. 

3. Solar Star

Solar Star is a Flat-panel 579 MW photovoltaic power station near Rosamond, California. It is operated and maintained by SunPower Services. In 2015, it was the world’s largest solar farm in terms of installed capacity. Compared to other photovoltaic plants, Solar Star uses a smaller number of large form-factor, high-wattage, high-efficiency, higher-cost crystalline silicon modules. 

2. Mount Signal Solar

Mount Signal Solar, also known as ‘Imperial Valley Solar Project’ is a flat-panel 794 MW photovoltaic power station west of Calexico, California. The facility is being developed and constructed by 8minutenergy Renewables in three phases. At full build-out, it’s expected to be the world’s largest PV solar farm with a capacity of 800 MW. The project is also being supported by several environmental groups, as the power station was built on low-productivity farmland. 

1. Cooper Mountain Solar Facility

The Copper Mountain Solar Facility is a Flat-panel PV 802 MW solar photovoltaic power plant in Boulder City, Nevada. The plant was developed and is owned by Sempra Generation. Construction for the plant began in January 2010. The area of the site is 4,000 acres. It has 9 million First Solar panels and has an average capacity factor of 27.9%. Its annual net output is 1,348 GWh or 337 MWh per acre. It is co-located with the 64 MW Nevada Solar One, 150 MW Boulder Solar, and 300 MW Techren Solar. Together, they are able to form more than 1 GW of solar power. By comparison, generating capacity at Hoover Dam is about 2 GW.


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