The Solar Surge

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Across demographics, the appeal of solar energy is strong. Even as the nation debates the necessity of renewable energy sources, the appeal of harnessing the sun’s rays holds sway. Whether you’re interested in doing your environmental part, or simply saving money on your electric bill each month, the benefits of solar speak for themselves. No wonder a recent nationwide Gallup poll showed 79% of those surveyed support an increased emphasis on solar in the years to come.

But if solar is as close as we come to uncontroversial energy, where does public opinion produce action? If we want to delve deeper than widespread idealism, there’s one concrete measure of where Americans are getting serious about solar: actual installations. We tracked down the data to show which parts of the American landscape are moving beyond just talking the talk and actually adopting solar panels.

Solar Sunrise: The Increase in Installs

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Here’s the big – and bright – picture: In recent years, solar has enjoyed an exponential surge in popularity. While the solar market has seen slight dips or moments of stasis in some years, the broader trend is encouraging to those who wish the technology were applied more broadly. If the yearly count of installs can go from mere hundreds to nearly 80,000 in just two decades, just how much can the industry expand in coming years?

Another interesting note: The deepest years of the recession seem to have left solar relatively unscathed. That’s a striking fact, at a time when many homeowners and businesses chose to delay other structural improvements, citing cost concerns. The relative resistance of solar to economic upheaval may indicate an interesting dynamic. During the downturn, it’s possible that families and businesses chose to invest in a technology with a proven track record of sustainable return on investment. After all, how many other upgrades offered the same guarantee of financial benefits?

Solar vs. CO2

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Another encouraging reflection: Solar panel installations seem to have an inverse relationship with CO2 emissions. Except a period of mutual rise from 2009 to 2010, when one indicator goes up, the other falls. Of course, there are dozens of other variables at work, and solar can’t claim full credit for the correlation. Plus, the trend includes a 2013 uptick in emissions and a downturn in installs. Despite those conditions, there’s good reason to believe that America’s carbon footprint shrinks when solar surges.

Solar Installations by State

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Now it’s time to see which states lead the charge. Ok, we hear you – no big surprise that California is king when it comes to solar panel installs. The state has a legacy of environmentalist culture, and a record of hard facts to match. In fact, its total number of installs dwarfs those of even their closest peers, like No. 2 Arizona, which boasts its fair share of sun.

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There’s an interesting trend of Northeastern states ranking high in solar panels installs, with spots 3 through 7 occupied by New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. It just goes to show: You don’t need to bask in consistent sunshine to feel the solar appeal.

Considering Capacity

While install totals are a good measure of the technology’s popularity, they don’t necessarily tell the whole solar story. Not all installs are created equal – each set of panels varies in size and efficiency. To see where the most solar energy is being created, we measured the total production capacity of the solar installs by state.

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California still sits atop the rankings, but other states shuffle relative to the install count graphics farther above. Nevada, Colorado, and Minnesota make this top 10, and New Jersey ascends to the second spot. That’s partially due to strong solar programs in the Garden State, like a $500 million program regultors approved in mid-2013. That point brings us to our next subject …

Installations vs. Incentives

Lots of states have moved to make solar particularly attractive, through incentives such as tax breaks or spending initiatives for which solar companies eagerly bid. It’s not just politicians playing to the tide of popular opinion swelling around social: There’s a genuine desire to position their states at the forefront of an energy revolution long in the making.

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You’ll notice that many of the top capacity states make this list as well. While some incentives function at the level of consumer kickbacks for implementing solar in their homes, most are targeted at the commercial or government level. Maybe that’s why Colorado and Minnesota are close to the top in megawatts but not in total installs. Where incentives are at play, installs are fewer in number but greater in individual capacity.

Incentives by Affect

With so many states making concerted efforts to bolster solar panel installations in size and number, it’s worth exploring where incentives seem to be working best. Policy outcomes are complicated to evaluate, especially when so many incentives are relatively new, with an aim of encouraging gradual results over time. Still, here’s a basic indication of where incentive policies have caused solar to take off.

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In this list, we see Delaware and D.C. emerge among the top-ranked states. While they boast relatively small populations, their efforts seem to be registering as effective compared with their peers.


From the Pacific to the Jersey Turnpike, solar panels are making their presence felt across the nation. After years without broad commercial adoption, solar panels are showing up in spots we might not have expected, and it’s safe to say that more are on their way. We hope this look at the data behind solar installs across America sheds light on a phenomenon that many support generally but few understand in much detail. As successful solar installs are better understood and encouraged, there’s no reason to think it can’t change the face of our nation’s energy – and soon!

Our Methodology

When it comes to solar installations, there’s no source more authoritative than the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, an official laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy. The folks at the NREL have developed a database of solar installations dating back decades by soliciting data from government agencies, industry leaders, and the public. It’s called the Open PV Project (PV standing for photovoltaic, a technical term for solar’s energy conversion process), and it’s arguably the most comprehensive documentation of American solar energy out there. That’s why we studied its data for this project, compiling its records to track installations across the nation over time.

That being said, a few notes should be made clear in the interest of accuracy. All the data presented here are voluntarily submitted – the data we illustrate have been offered willingly by the individuals connected to each install. Here’s how the NREL describes their own data collection methods, and how they hope the public will engage the info they offer:

Data for the project are voluntarily contributed from a variety of sources including solar incentive programs, utilities, installers, and the general public. This database serves as a web-based resource for users to easily explore and understand the current and past trends of the US PV industry. The data collected is actively maintained by the contributors and are always changing to provide an evolving, up-to-date snapshot of the US solar power market.

That means that while our project offers the latest information from America’s foremost government authority on solar, it doesn’t account for all installs, everywhere. Rather, it presents facts and figures we can interpret as representative of the solar industry’s wider dynamics and trends. This also means that the data included in the database are in a state of gradual change, as submissions roll in. Our project’s data reflects the database at the time of publication, but it won’t perfectly match the database as it’s updated continually.

We also thank the NC Clean Energy Center for its Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency and the U.S. Department of Energy for its carbon emissions data.


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