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Price Reductions Help Drive Solar Boom


The number of U.S. businesses with solar energy installations grew to a new high in 2015. Enterprises ranging from family-run companies to some of the country’s biggest corporations are producing their own energy, cutting operating expenses and achieving environmental sustainability.

A recent report from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) provides data and insights into the diverse mix of corporate offices, office buildings, retail, manufacturing, data centers, distribution and logistics centers, and convention centers that have gone solar.

A key reason for the commercial solar boom can be seen in the significant system price reductions over the past few years, according to the report.

“The average price of a commercial photovoltaic (PV) system has dropped by nearly 30% in the past three years,” SEIA found. The companies sampled in the report, representing businesses in 37 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have deployed 1,686 systems totaling 907 megawatts (MW-DC), producing enough electricity to power more than 158,000 homes. The amount of solar installed at the U.S. corporations and businesses surveyed offsets at least 890,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

Walmart: The report breaks down the Top 25 companies by the number of solar systems and by installed solar capacity in megawatts (MW). Topping the list in both categories is Walmart. The big-box giant has 348 mostly rooftop PV systems accounting for 142MW, or about 407 kilowatts (KW) per system — very close to the overall average commercial rooftop system size of 419KW found in the SEIA data set.

In addition, Walmart is also a driver of the booming category of carport-style installations, with at least 23 such systems coming online over the past three years. (Solar carports are the preferred solution for companies without large flat rooftops or open ground space, and provide an ideal complement to electric vehicle charging stations.)

The report notes that large retailers with prodigious square footage and unutilized roof space, the largest single commercial solar sector, “... have seen perhaps the most consistent and steady growth over the years as they typically have a similar building structure, which allows them to make large solar installation deals for multiple locations throughout the country.” These projects account for 397MW of the total and range from 4.4KW to a 1.63MW system powering an Ikea store in Round Rock, Texas.

The steady growth of massive ground-mount commercial solar projects represents another key sector to the SEIA database. The likes of Apple and Amazon are already benefiting from 20MW and larger solar projects supplying clean energy to their big data centers and server farms. (Ground-mounted solar projects often achieve the highest ROI by allowing for optimal system sizing, design and layout, improving both constructability and long-term energy yields.)

Financing: Another key driver of commercial solar growth has been solar financing options (solar power purchase agreement, solar lease or cash purchase) now available to businesses. Electricity bills are a non-discretionary annual expense for almost all organizations, and financing solutions allow businesses to reduce those annual bills with little to no capital outlay.

With the extension of the Investment Tax Credit and continued declines in solar system prices, 2016 will be a great year for businesses to go solar. In the end, thousands of solar-powered businesses will see millions of dollars in energy savings and returns on their clean energy investments.

Alan Russo is senior VP of sales and marketing for REC Solar.

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