The awe-inspiring growth of the U.S. solar industry

04/29/2016 02:59 pm ET

We all have dreams. Mine was to bring solar energy into the mainstream. 

In 2002, frustrated by the lack of progress in the fight against climate change, a college friend and I co-founded Vote Solar, a non-profit organization, to bring down costs and ramp up the scale of this clean energy solution. Now, less than 15 years later, costs of solar energy have come down nearly 90 percent. There are more than one million solar projects powering our country and a new one is installed every two and a half minutes. 

This is an awe-inspiring milestone. What is even more inspiring are the many people who have helped make this history. It is the 200,000 solar workers and the many customers, policy leaders, and supporters who are all part of our growing clean energy economy.

It’s only fitting that we’d have such a massive groundswell driving the transition to this more democratic form of energy. For generations we have depended on a centralized, often monopoly-based energy system that has provided us reliable power, but polluted our air and contributed to the serious impacts of climate change. But now, affordable solar and other clean technologies are putting power – literally – in the hands of people. Consumers want to lower their bills and choose where their power comes from in a way that the old model doesn’t allow, and today they can and do exercise that choice by going solar.  

And it’s not just people, it’s also companies. Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Salesforce all have commitments to 100% renewable energy. These tech giants are not only some of the most admired and profitable companies in the world, but share another thing in common: electricity is their main ingredient. Major retailers like IKEA and Wal-Mart have installed hundreds of megawatts of solar on their stores nationwide.

Solar’s costs have come down to the point that we regularly see contracts for utility-scale solar power under 5 cents per kilowatt-hour – making solar, in many cases, a cost-competitive option for utilities. Last year our country added more solar than new natural gas capacity for the first time ever – and you can bet it won’t be the last. In fact, there have been times this year when California, one of the world’s largest economies, has gotten third of its power from the sun. 

It hasn’t always been sunny on the road to a million solar installations. Although there is sustained double-digit market and job growth, there have also been naysayers, big-moneyed opposition, nasty electoral politics, and stumbles from an industry in its early stages. Despite the ups and downs, the ‘solar coaster’ has been well worth the ride. It’s brought us a million solar installations and along with it, cleaner air, local jobs, and energy bill savings.

So, to the overwhelming majority of Americans who agree that we should harness more homegrown sunshine, I say take heart and keep it up. It took 40 years to get to one million solar projects in the United States, but we are going to reach two million in less than two years. The dream of bringing solar to the mainstream is coming true before our very eyes.

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