In 2011, utilities interconnected more than 62,000 PV systems of all sizes, according to a new report from the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA). These new systems resulted in almost 1,500 MW of new utility solar capacity – more than twice as much as was added in 2010, which itself had been a record year.
Both the number of systems and the percentage of growth make solar electricity the fastest-growing electric source in the U.S. in 2011, according to SEPA.
‘In addition to the photovoltaic systems added by customers and third-party producers, much of the growth has come from the direct actions of utilities,’ says Julia Hamm, president and CEO of SEPA.
The findings show that 39% of new solar capacity came from utilities owning or contracting for solar power. Large solar projects, greater than 10 MW each, represent the bulk of this capacity.
‘This is a marked shift from a few years ago, when customer-owned, net-metered systems dominated installed solar generation,’ Hamm notes. ‘Today, utilities are taking a greater role in the expansion of solar power in the United States.’
Much of this dramatic growth took place not just in the Southwest – traditionally the leader in solar power – but also in Eastern states. The growth took place on the systems of municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives, as well as those of investor-owned utilities.
The findings of SEPA's annual Utility Solar Rankings survey identify the most active utilities in the country based on the amount of new solar power they added to their systems, and on the amount of new solar power relative to the number of customers they serve.
Altogether, the Top 10 utilities reported adding more than 1 GW of solar electricity capacity in 2011. Overall, more than 240 utilities surveyed reported nearly 1.5 GW of new solar, equivalent to about six natural gas power plants.
For the fourth straight year, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), in northern California, led all utilities in the most new solar energy added to its grid with 288 MW, according to the report. A New Jersey utility, Public Service Electric & Gas Co., secured the No. 2 spot with 181 MW in 2011.
It took at least 45 MW to make the Top 10 list in 2011 – more than double the minimum amount needed the previous year, SEPA notes. Four East Coast utilities earned spots in the Top 10 for new solar energy added, showing that solar power is spreading far beyond its original concentration in the southwestern part of the U.S.
In 2011, public power utilities returned to the Top 10 after none made it in 2010, with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) ranking Nos. 7 and 9, respectively.
Additionally, for the first time, a New Mexico utility made the Top 10 list, with Southwestern Public Service (Xcel Energy-NM) jumping from the No. 56 spot in 2010 to No. 10 in 2011.
On a watts-per-customer basis, Vineland Municipal Electric Utility in New Jersey took the top spot. A newcomer to the Top 10 list, the municipal utility ranked first nationally with an unprecedented 769 watts per customer after integrating approximately 19 MW of PV for its nearly 25,000 customers.
Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corp. in Georgia and Fayetteville Public Utilities in Tennessee jumped up the list, ranking Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. Blue Ridge Mountain is the sole rural electric cooperative utility in either of this year's Top 10 lists.
The full Top 10 report will be available in late May at SEPATop10.org.