Star Power: The Growing Role of Solar Energy in America

Released by: Environment America Research & Policy Center

America could meet its energy needs by capturing just a sliver of the virtually limitless and pollution-free energy that strikes the nation every day in the form of sunlight. With solar installation costs falling, the efficiency of solar cells rising, and the threats of air pollution and global warming ever-looming, solar power is becoming a more attractive and widespread source of energy every day.

Solar energy is on the rise across the country. The amount of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity* in the United States has tripled in the past two years. More than half of all new U.S. electricity generating capacity came from solar installations in the first half of 2014, and the United States now has enough solar electric capacity installed to power more than 3.2 million homes.

America should build on the recent growth in solar energy by setting a goal of obtaining at least 10 percent of its electricity from solar power by 2030. Achieving that goal would result in a cleaner environment, less dependence on fossil fuels, and a stronger economy.

America’s solar energy potential is nearly limitless. Based on renewable energy technical potential reported by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory:

  • The United States has the potential to produce more than 100 times as much electricity from solar PV and concentrating solar power (CSP) installations as the nation consumes each year. Each of the 50 states has the potential to generate far more electricity from the sun than its residents consume. (See Figure ES-1.)
  • There are 35 million residential and commercial rooftops that could host solar panels across the United States.

Continued growth in solar energy would bring a goal of 10 percent solar electricity within reach.

  • Nationally, solar PV capacity increased at a rate of 77 percent per year from 2010 to 2013. If solar installations continue to increase at less than one-third of that annual rate of growth (22 percent) between 2013 and 2030, America would have enough solar energy to generate 10 percent of its electricity. (See Figure ES-2.)

Figure ES-1. Solar Electricity Technical Potential Compared with Electricity Consumption

Figure ES-2. The United States Can Generate 10 Percent of Its Electricity from Solar Power by 2030

Getting at least 10 percent of America’s electricity from the sun by 2030 would represent a major step toward stabilizing the climate, cleaning our air and building a prosperous, sustainable economy.

  • Producing 10 percent of our electricity from clean, solar power would reduce America’s global warming pollution by 280 million metric tons in 2030, which is the equivalent of taking 59 million cars off the road. Solar energy at that scale would help the United States comply with the goals of the Clean Power Plan – the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) proposed plan to reduce U.S. global warming pollution from the power sector by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.  If the EPA decides that distributed generation can help states achieve their goals under the Clean Power Plan, producing 10 percent of our electricity from clean, solar power would enable the United States to achieve half of its emission reductions goal.
  • Expanding solar energy will also reduce emissions of pollutants that contribute to the formation of smog and soot and threaten public health, especially the health of vulnerable populations like children, the elderly and those with respiratory diseases.
  • Obtaining 10 percent of U.S. electricity from solar energy would reduce water consumption from power plants dramatically. The life-cycle water consumption of solar photovoltaics is 1/500th of the life-cycle water consumption of coal power plants and 1/80th of that of natural gas plants, per unit of electricity produced.
  • Solar energy creates local clean energy jobs that cannot be outsourced. Growth in the solar industry from November 2012 to November 2013 was 10 times faster than the national average for employment, and more than 140,000 Americans worked in the solar energy industry in 2013.

A future in which America gets at least 10 percent of its electricity from the sun is within reach. The tools to build this vision are available and the momentum exists – now federal, state and local governments should adopt aggressive goals for solar integration and implement policies that encourage the adoption of solar power.

To achieve America’s full solar potential:

  • The federal government should commit to a baseline goal of obtaining at least 10 percent of the nation’s electricity from solar energy by 2030. The federal government should utilize solar energy on government buildings and also continue successful solar policies, including federal incentives, programs to responsibly site solar energy on public lands, and research, development and deployment efforts designed to help local and state governments reduce the cost of solar energy and smooth the incorporation of large amounts of solar energy into the electric grid. It should consider adopting a baseline standard for net metering.  In addition, the federal government should strengthen and finalize the Clean Power Plan and ensure that distributed electricity resources, such as rooftop solar panels, can be used as a tool for compliance.
  • State governments should set ambitious goals for solar energy and adopt policies to meet them. State governments should also maintain or adopt strong net metering and interconnection standards, promote community solar and virtual net metering that can deliver the benefits of solar power to low income communities, facilitate third-party sales of solar power to provide access to successful solar leasing programs, and make smart investments to move toward a more intelligent electric grid in which distributed sources of energy such as solar power play a larger role.  Government should utilize solar wherever possible on state buildings and properties. Solar power should also play a significant role in states’ plans to meet or exceed the requirements of the Clean Power Plan.
  • Local governments should adopt strong solar goals, utilize solar wherever possible on public buildings and properties, ensure that homeowners and businesses can “go solar” easily and with a minimal amount of red tape, implement financing programs, such as property-assessed clean energy (PACE) financing, and adopt bulk purchasing programs for solar installations. Local governments should also establish zoning and building codes that facilitate the use of solar energy. Municipally owned utilities should promote solar energy by providing net metering or other rate structures to compensate solar homeowners fairly, and by making investments in community-scale and utility-scale solar projects.

* In this report, “solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity,” or “solar PV,” refers to installed solar photovoltaic systems, both distributed and utility-scale. “Solar electricity capacity” refers to all solar technologies that generate electricity, including concentrating solar power systems that use the sun’s heat – rather than its light – to generate electricity. The figures in this report do not include other solar energy technologies, such as solar water heating. 


It has come to our attention that our report overestimated the solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity within the city of Wilmington, Delaware. We have revised our estimate, leaving Wilmington with the cumulative solar PV capacity of 4.9 megawatts (MW), instead of 7 MW as previously reported, and the per capita solar PV capacity of 68 watts/person, instead of 101 watts/person as previously reported.

This puts Wilmington 9th in our report for solar PV capacity per person, instead of 5th as we had previously reported. It puts the city 35th in cumulative capacity rankings, instead of 28th as previously reported. In the South Atlantic region, Wilmington is still ranked first for per capita solar PV capacity, but the city falls from 4th to 6th for cumulative installed solar PV capacity in the region.