The first three months of 2014 marked the first quarter in recent U.S. history that more residential solar electric systems were installed than commercial solar arrays. GTM researchers, who collected the Q1 data, believe the residential market will continue its upward trend and outpace the non-residential market on an annual basis as soon as 2016.
“We forecast that 6.6 GW of photovoltaics (PV) will be installed this year, up 39 percent over 2013 and nearly double the market size in 2012,” reports GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) in their most recent U.S. Solar Market Insight report.
With the influx of solar installations, it’s clear that more and more Americans are exploring the option of solar panels on their rooftop—especially as prices continue to fall. From the first quarter of 2013 to April of this year, the price of a residential system dropped 7 percent (from $4.91 per watt to $4.56 per watt), the report revealed.
But a majority of residents—nearly 80 percent according to NREL—are discovering their rooftops are unsuitable for solar panels. “Not everyone has a non-shaded, south-facing roof,” said renewable energy consultant and NABCEP board member Carl Siegrist. Community solar gardens address this problem by allowing homeowners, renters and businesses to buy or rent panels in a centralized solar array.
Rooftop or Community Solar?
Aside from having a roof that can host solar panels, the decision between rooftop and community solar depends on a number of factors: how much a person wants to spend, their level of initial commitment to solar, the condition of their rooftop, whether they plan to move in the next decade, and how involved they want to be in the monitoring and maintenance of their system.
For highly committed, hands-on individuals who want to see their solar panels daily and have the ability to check the connections, remove snow and showcase their clean energy usage to friends and neighbors—a rooftop installation is ideal. But for those who want to start with a few panels, spend a modest amount or don’t want the hassle of a system on their rooftop—community solar is the best option.
Panel ownership isn’t restricted to rooftop arrays. In 2009, Clean Energy Collective (CEC) developed the nation’s first community-owned solar model, allowing individuals, businesses and municipalities to buy panels in a shared facility. Therefore, even if you don’t own your home or business, you can still own a solar system and generate a payback on your asset while reducing your carbon footprint.
The price of solar continues to drop as it becomes cost-competitive with traditional energy sources, making solar more practical than ever before. As of April, the national weighted-average price of a residential solar system had fallen to new low of $4.56 per watt, report GTM researchers. The cost of panels in CEC’s community solar arrays range from $1.59 per watt in Ft. Collins, Colo. to $4.30 per watt in Hadley, Mass.
With the low cost and flexibility of community solar gardens, is this model gearing up to replace rooftop solar?
“I think they’ll complement each other, but I don’t think one is going to completely overshadow the other,” Siegrist said. “Personally, I envision in a day in the not-too-distant future, where every new building is designed and built with solar installed.”
That day is getting closer. The U.S. installed 1,330 megawatts of solar PV in the first quarter of 2014—a 79 percent increase from the first quarter of 2013 and the second largest quarter for solar installations in history.
“I think the dominant piece will be solar on the buildings where people are living and working, but there will continue to be a role for community solar—because not everyone can put solar on their property,” Siegrist said.