As a sort of addendum to yesterday's post about the enticing future of ubiquitous solar power, a few notes on the sunny present...

Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently upped its best-case forecast for 2011 new solar installations worldwide to 28 gigawatts, which would represent a 50 percent increase over the record-breaking year the industry had in 2010. The growth rate, Bloomberg notes, is in the range of the sales boost Apple Inc. got from iPad sales last year; the new generating capacity is equal to the amount of energy produced by nuclear power plants in both Germany and China, the global leaders in solar panel manufacturing.

The final results are in for Germany's record solar year: a quarter of a million new solar PV systems were added to the German grid in 2010, bringing 7.4 gigawatts of solar power onto the grid. This is a full gigawatt more solar power than existed everywhere on the planet at the end of 2005. I want the scale of that to be quite clear: Germany, all by itself, added a Whole-World-in-2005's worth of solar to its grid last year. In national terms, the Germans took a quarter century to go from zero to 1 percent of their grid powered by the sun; they went from 1 to 2 percent in the first eight months of 2010.

(I'll be returning often to the extraordinary policy device known as a feed-in tariff that has made Germany the global pacesetter in renewable energy; I'll leave it aside for today, and let the numbers make the case for the notion that not-particularly-sunny Germany is the best legislative environment on the planet for solar power.)

Several analysts — including John Dennitson of legendary venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins — are reporting that solar power has now reached grid parity in Italy (which added solar to its grid at almost Germanic scale in 2010) and California. Grid parity is the point at which a new watt of solar power is equal in marginal cost to that of conventional energy; it's the holy grail (and/or tipping point) for solar, beyond which it's expected that even the boom year of 2010 will look like mere prelude.

Finally, an interesting graph on the share of new solar installations by state across the U.S. in 2010:

If you're looking for an illustration of the importance of policy, this is a pretty solid one. Note that Florida (official state motto: “Sunshine State”; unstated policy stance toward renewable energy: meh) sits in eighth place, while New Jersey (unofficial motto: “the place people abandon for the Sunshine State upon retirement;” policy stance: SRECs R Us!) is in second. Why? Real incentives in a welcoming policy environment. Those aforementioned SRECs (“Solar Renewable Energy Certificates”) in particular.

Worldwide, these are bright days indeed for the solar business.

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