10 Facts About Solar Energy That Might Surprise You

After decades of development and political debate about solar energy, the industry is finally ready to stand on its own. Solar power projects around the world are beating fossil fuels on price without subsidies, and each time they do, the future looks a little brighter.

But there's still a lot most people don't know about solar energy. Here are 10 things that may surprise you.

1. Solar power is the most abundant energy source on Earth

There's enough solar energy hitting the Earth every hour to meet all of humanity's power needs for an entire year.

Every ounce of oil, every lump of coal, and every cubic foot of natural gas could be left in the ground if only we could capture one hour's worth of solar energy each year. That's the scale of the opportunity.

To put the it into a different perspective, if we covered the Mojave Desert with solar arrays, it would generate more than twice as much electricity as the U.S. uses annually.

2. Solar panel costs have fallen 99% since 1977 

In 1977, it cost $77 per watt for a simple solar cell. According to Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research's Q3 2017 Solar Market Insight Report, the cost of a solar cell now is $0.21 per watt. An entire assembled module is $0.39 per watt.

3. Solar Energy is cheaper than fossil fuels

According to Lazard's Levelized Cost Of Energy Analysis--Version 11.0, solar energy costs as little as 4.3 cents per kWh on an unsubsidized basis, cheaper than nearly every option for new fossil-fuel power plants. The cheapest fossil fuel option is natural gas, which costs between 4.2 and 7.8 cents per kWh.

Depending on where you're looking at producing solar energy, it's probably already cheaper than coal, diesel, nuclear, and in most cases, natural gas, particularly in the Southern U.S. If the pattern of cost reductions is any indication, it won't be long before solar blows away every form of fossil fuel on a cost basis.

4. Solar power plants can last 40 years or more

When a solar power plant is built, it's usually backed by a power purchase agreement with a customer (utility, business, or homeowner) that lasts 20 to 25 years. But that doesn't mean such plants will be worthless two decades later.

Not only will solar panels last 40 or 50 years, the infrastructure around a solar power plant has a lot of value. Solar panels could be replace with new, more efficient modules at relatively low cost, thus improving performance, but once a site is established and the infrastructure is built, a solar power plant has a very long effective lifespan.

5. China is the world leader in solar energy ... by a lot

Solar energy is starting to get a lot of attention in the U.S., but we're small fish compared to China. In 2017, GTM Research estimates that the U.S. will install 12.4 GW of new solar power systems. China installed 24.4 GW in the first half alone, and will likely pass 50 GW for the full year.

To put China's 2017 solar installations into perspective, that 50 GW of solar would power 8.2 million U.S. homes. 

6. California is the U.S. star in solar

No state in the U.S. has driven the solar industry forward more than California. Not only is it No. 1 in solar installations by a wide margin with 19.7 GW installed at the end of 2016, it gets 14% of its electricity from solar -- a greater percentage than any other state, according the SEIA.

What's amazing about California's solar market is that it's well distributed between small, rooftop systems and some of the largest solar power plants in the world, as you can see below.

7. 39% of new electricity production capacity installed in 2016 was solar

Not only is solar cost effective, it's a big part of our new power plant mix. As illustrated below, last year, 39% of all new electric capacity was from solar energy, up from just 4% in 2010. As costs come down and more utilities look for solar assets, this percentage of new additions will likely go up.

8. Solar is the fastest energy source to deploy

When disaster strikes, no electricity source can be built or repaired as quickly as solar -- as the situation in Puerto Rico following this year's hurricanes demonstrated. Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) and others were able to build small solar power plants with energy storage capabilities on the island in a matter of weeks. No fossil-fuel power plant, nor any other renewable energy facility, could have been brought only so quickly.

9. There's probably a solar panel near you

Big solar power plants built in remote deserts may get a lot of attention, but it's distributed solar that's really disrupting how we look at energy. These projects are spread all over the grid, from home rooftops to panels deployed on your local big-box retailer.

You may be surprised to find out that according to the Solar Energy Industries Association's latest Solar Means Business report, Target (NYSE: TGT) is the largest corporate solar energy buyer, with 147.5 MW of solar generation, and Walmart (NYSE: WMT) is second with 145.0 MW. Another notable corporate buyer is Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), with 93.9 MW of solar generation in the U.S., enough to fully charge 39 million iPhones every day for a year. Long term, Apple aims to not only power its operations with renewable energy, but to buy enough renewable energy to power the devices it makes.

10. Utilities are giving people solar options

If you personally want to go solar, a rooftop system may be the choice for you. But even if you don't own a home that's suitable for installing solar panels, you can get 100% of your electricity from solar energy in a growing number of places. Community solar projects are popping up in states such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, allowing ordinary consumers to be the power purchase agreement customers for solar projects. And utilities across the country are giving customers to option to source their electricity from wind or solar for an extra fee.

The bottom line is that solar is booming around the world, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. Investors across the energy spectrum should take notice.

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Travis Hoium owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and Tesla. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.