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Growth of solar energy and battery capacity yields sunny forecast for the industry

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An aerial view of the Amazon Fort Powhatan Solar Farm in Virginia.

"Now, there's more incentive and more availability of locations to build new solar projects," an Energy Department spokesman said. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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The Energy Information Administration — part of the Department of Energy — forecasts that more than half of the new capacity added to the electric grid this year will be solar.

Also, battery capacity, which is critical for storing solar and wind energy, is on track to more than double this year. 

For a long time, wind was proliferating much more quickly than solar in the U.S., but Joshua Rhodes at the University of Texas at Austin said that’s no longer the case.

“While wind continues to get built across the U.S., its pace has slowed down, whereas solar has started to ramp up,” Rhodes explained. “It kind of feels like solar is where wind was about seven or eight years ago.”

Why is this? One reason, Rhodes said, is that solar has finally become cheaper to deploy.

“Wind was often the cheapest thing to do over the past decade, but solar appears to be taking that mantle,” Rhodes said. “A lot of the best locations for wind have essentially already been taken.”

Tyler Hodge at the Energy Information Administration said the landscape for solar is expanding.

“Now, there’s more incentive and more availability of locations to build new solar projects,” Hodge said.

Demand for solar has also been rising from all kinds of customers, according to Abigail Ross Hopper at the Solar Energy Industries Association. That includes “homeowners that want to put it on their roof” and businesses that use solar to save money.

“And then utilities,” Hopper added. “Utilities are a huge source of demand. And obviously the customers … of utilities are demanding it. And so utilities are procuring it.”

It’s not just demand for solar panels and clean energy that’s growing. Demand for better batteries to store that solar energy to use later is growing too. The technology is catching up, added Dan Kammen at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Because of all the interest in storage now and interest in going green, we’re seeing long-duration batteries starting to enter the market,” Kammen said.

He said that may be the most exciting development.

“Solar is now unambiguously the cheapest new form of energy you can put on the grid. We can just ramp that way up. But it becomes massively more effective when we ramp up storage,” Kammen said.

This year, we’re likely to see both.  

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