Newsletter: Behold the bigness of solar

Introducing Solar High Rollers, a new Canary Media column on the success and growing pains of utility-scale solar.
By Julian Spector

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We’ve got something extra special for you today: the launch of a new column dedicated to the victories and growing pains of large-scale solar, the rapidly growing workhorse of the clean energy transition.

The inaugural edition of Solar High Rollers is a good one to bookmark for whenever you or someone you care about wonders, What’s up with solar these days?” Our very own Eric Wesoff covers the gamut of successes and challenges. To whit:

  • Despite headwinds, U.S. solar installations had their biggest year ever in 2020, and 2021 will be even bigger.
  • The vast majority of that capacity comes from the big stuff. Rooftop solar looms large in the collective imagination and helps households save on energy bills. But all those rooftop installations are vastly overshadowed by the might of utility-scale solar farms.
  • We’re seeing a stronger push for American solar manufacturing, including an innovative new tax credit proposed by U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia (D). The largest solar manufacturing facility in the Western Hemisphere, owned by Hanwha Q Cells, is located in Dalton, Georgia.
  • The rapid solar cost declines of the last decade appear to be leveling out. To keep making solar cheaper, people have to get creative. Startup Erthos aims to cut costs by laying solar panels directly on the ground, dispensing with metal racking materials and pile drivers.
  • Since Texas is now the most active state for solar installations, augment your reading experience with Texas Sun, the dreamy collab between Leon Bridges and funky psychedelic rockers Khruangbin. (Spotify once ranked me in the 98th percentile of Khruangbin listeners, but kudos to Eric for finding the tie-in to the solar column.)
  • Scroll all the way down to watch Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm install thin-film panels with IBEW workers at a solar project in Nevada, plus a video of the cutest solar vegetation management system you ever did see.

And since we believe in journalistic transparency here at Canary Media, I offer you some bonus content:

Rejected big-solar column titles

  • Supersize Solar
  • Lumen Large
  • Big-Ass Solar
  • Old McSolar Had a Farm
  • Solar Derby
  • Sunny Delight
  • SoLarge
  • Sunny Money

Meanwhile, regional solar installers supersize themselves

Regional rooftop installers are joining forces to keep up with the maturing solar market, Emma Foehringer Merchant reports.

There’s a tension in the rooftop solar sector between big and small. Sunrun is the largest nationwide installer, and it bought runner-up Vivint Solar, making the company even bigger. That scale unlocks cheaper capital and better deals on equipment, but it comes with challenges like higher sales costs and corporate overhead.

On the other end of the spectrum, mom-and-pop shops benefit from their proximity to customers; that can make it easier to find customers (referrals are free!) and speed up installation times. But local players may miss out on access to cheap financing and better rates on solar panels.

A new model aims to find balance between big and small. Five regional installers just merged to form Lumio, which is now doing business in 37 states. A separate company called Pineapple Energy is also buying up regional companies to build a locally rooted but geographically diversified empire.

Solar still reaches just a tiny share of U.S. households. This consolidation is a trend to watch as the industry figures out how best to reach everyone else.

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Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.