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How Solar Is Conquering the Grid

We’ve known for a few years now that solar power is surging in the U.S. and the rest of the world: costs have been falling for a while and countries like the United States, China, and India have been building so many solar panels that solar was the world’s fastest growing energy source in 2016. But thanks to a recently-published report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, we now know the full extent of that trend.

The EIA report looks at the costs and spread of energy sources like solar, wind, and natural gas from 2013 to 2016. Over this three year period, the report finds that natural gas costs stayed roughly flat, and wind got slightly cheaper. The standout statistic, however, is the change in the cost of solar panels over those three years.

In 2013, the cost per kilowatt of solar power hovered around $3,700, significantly pricier than the other two options. But by 2016, the cost had dropped by about a third, to less than $2,500 per kilowatt. That price also doesn’t take into account various federal, state, and local incentives for building new solar plants, so the real cost to utilities is likely even less.

This graph shows the costs of solar, wind, and natural gas plants in the top line graphs, and the capacity added per year in the bottom bar graphs. U.S. Energy Information Administration

That drop in price likely explains why solar farms suddenly got a lot more popular in 2016. According to the EIA data, eight gigawatts of new solar power was built in the U.S. in 2016, up from only around three the year before. That makes solar the second most common new power source for that year, surpassing natural gas for the first time.

Solar does still have a long way to go before it reaches the same cost per kilowatt without subsidies as natural gas, so that doesn’t mean we’re headed to a purely solar country anytime soon. But it does mean that solar is here to stay, and will almost certainly be a big part of the foreseeable future.


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