California: The Pioneer of Solar Energy in America
California has a lot of “firsts” for solar energy in America, aside from continually being the top state for total solar PV capacity. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Golden State is leading the market and has always had more solar energy than anywhere else in the US — the landscape and environmentally friendly mentality that Californians tend to have go hand in hand. They are the true “pioneers” of solar energy throughout all 50 states.
As we all know, the closest star to Earth is the magnificent Sun, and we’ve been utilizing it to improve our quality of life since the beginning of time. It’s been used to tell time, help our crops grow, and in the last two centuries, it’s been harnessed into electricity. Alexandre Edmond Becquerel first discovered that certain materials generate a current when exposed to sunlight in 1839. The PV (photovoltaic – “photo” meaning light, and “voltaic” meaning voltage production) silicon solar cell was patented in 1954 by scientists of Bell Laboratory, which produced electricity as it was exposed to sunlight.
Solar started out as an expensive form of electricity, and slowly became more and more affordable since the 1950s. The game changed after Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) in 1978 which allowed for independent power generators to connect with local utility systems. Then the Energy Tax Act came along the same year, encouraging homeowners to invest in solar and wind through tax credits. Wind turbines started popping up in the windy hills of California and more and more companies started investing in solar.
Here’s a “first”: The following year, in 1979, a Cali-based company called ARCO Solar started building the world’s largest PV manufacturing facility in Camarillo, and they soon became the first company to produce more than 1 MW (megawatt) of modules in just one year. Another “first”: in 1981, Solar One became the first large-scale thermal solar tower, which was designed by the Department of Energy (DOE), Southern California Edison, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and the California Energy Commission.
More “firsts”: Later, in 1986, LUZ Solar Energy began construction of the world’s largest solar thermal generator (300 MW of electricity) in the Mojave Desert, and it still operates today in 2017. In 1993, the ball started rolling towards where we are in solar today — the first grid-supported solar system (500 KW) was installed by Pacific Gas & Electric in Kerman, California.
Let’s fast forward to today. California, as we mentioned, has always been the leading solar state and the truth is in the numbers. With 18,296 MW installed throughout the state, there is enough solar energy present to power 4.7 million homes. Let’s put that into perspective: 18,296 MW translates to just under 22 million kilo-watt hours (kWh), which equates to reducing about 37 million miles driven by the average vehicle. Crazy right?
Regarding the entire nation’s capacity, California has 52% of utility-scale solar, and 73% of solar thermal throughout the entire country. There are a few key factors to this, besides the fact that history shows California as the “Head Cheerleader” of solar in the US.
Comparatively, the Golden State has an ambitious renewable energy portfolio which mandates utilities to receive 33% renewable power generation by 2020 with a goal to increase it 50% by 2030. Another big player in California’s solar boom is the utility-scale adoption coming from large businesses — companies like Campbell’s Soup, Apple, IKEA, Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, and Walgreens —that have all installed major systems in the state. On the residential side, according to Project Sunroof, an average homeowner is projected to save $12,000 over the course of a 20-year lease.
Long story short, California has mastered solar energy, and yet only 13% of its’ electric capacity comes from solar, so imagine how much opportunity still exists there.