An Overview of Photovoltaics in the USA

by Joseph Philips

For many years, many environmentalists and engineers have been pushing photovoltaics as an environmentally friendly technology that could aid in creating a greener world. Solar electricity was a difficult sell economically when competing with fossil fuels and other energy sources.

The fluctuating price of oil and deregulation are making people look for alternatives. Can one of those alternatives be solar electricity? Though a long road lies ahead for the PV industry, both pushes by the government and the industry are making photovoltaics a viable option for everyday people.

Government Initiatives

On June 26, 1997, in a speech before the United Nations Session on Environment and Development, President Clinton announced an initiative to install solar energy systems on one million U.S. building by 2010. Run by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the million solar roofs program represents a serious commitment by the United States government to promote solar technologies.

When the initiative started, about 2000 buildings were utilizing solar technologies. By the year 2000, close to 11,000 solar thermal and photovoltaic systems have been installed. Although a five-fold increase in three years, there are still many more installations that must be done over the next decade to meet the million solar roofs goal.

Although a federal initiative, the million solar roofs program is designed to assist states and local communities through collaborative ventures that bring business, government, the energy industry, and community organizations with a commitment to install a set number of solar energy systems. Close to 50 collaborative ventures have committed to install more than another 900,000 systems before 2010.

There are many incentives for installing solar systems on a state-by-state basis, and the Million Solar Roofs Initiative makes direct grants available. Currently, the DOE will be awarding 20-50 grants totalling ,500,000 to existing and/or new state and local partnerships. Each grant will be limited to ,000 and are intended to support the partnerships' development and implementation activities.

Industry Initiatives

The photovoltaic industry in the United States is not waiting for the government to take the lead. Already a leader in research and manufacturing of photovoltaics, experts from the industry met in June of 1999 to put together a PV Industry Roadmap. The meeting was the first step in identifying research needs for the industry.

The Roadmap was published January 1, 2000 setting forth goals over the next 20 years. The roadmap created a blueprint of research, technology, and market priorities needed to accomplish long-term PV industry goals. It laid out a vision to "…realize a thriving United States-based solar-electric power industry, which provides competitive and environmentally friendly energy products and services that meet the needs and desires of the domestic electric-energy consumer."

The roadmap put forward four goals for the industry:
· Maintain the U.S. industry's worldwide technology leadership
· Achieve economic competitiveness with conventional technologies
· Maintain a sustained market and PV production growth
· Make the PV industry profitable and attractive to investors

Specifically, the US industry looks to install 6 gigawatts peak (GWp) worldwide, and lower the cost to end-user (including O&M) to per watt AC in 2010 and will approach .50 per watt AC in 2020.

According to the Energy Information Agency, 77 thousand peak kilowatts of solar cells and modules were shipped in 1999. This is a 52% increase in production over the previous year.
Although 72 percent of this was exported, a 75-percent increase in photovoltaics connected to the grid was also recorded in the United States. The price of cells and modules also decreased from 1998 to 1999. Prices dropped a third to .01 per peak watt, while module prices dropped from .94 to .62.

In 1990, the United States produced 14.8 megawatts (MW) generating capacity of PV power. By the year 2000, that number has reached 78.5 megawatts, a five-fold increase in 10 years. In comparison, though, Japan produced 16.8 megawatts in 1990. By the year 2000, that number had reached 116.7 MW.

To reach the above goal of installing 6 GWp power worldwide by the year 2020 would require 80-fold increase in growth. Recently ASE Americas announced it would be increasing its production from 12 MW to 20 MW in 2001 at its plant in Billerica, Massachussets. AstroPower, Inc., a company that has stood out in basing its business on photovoltaic cell production posted record profits in the 4th quarter of 2000, a time when other technology industries were hit by a decrease in sales. Though currently a small industry the PV industry is moving from a garage technology to the mainstream.


The energy crisis in California, largely caused by increasing wholesale prices in natural gas, has highlighted the need for new energy sources. Under the new Bush administration, there has been a large call for the opening of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico for more sources of oil. Also, emphasis has been placed on the possible use of clean coal technologies. While some mention of renewable energy has been made it is unclear the role they will be regulated to under Bush.

A small article published in The Press Democrat Santa Rosa from California mentioned how energy officials were looking to alternative energy such as solar power, fuel cells and small " gas-powered generators, as a way to get energy quickly on the grid, instead of waiting for huge new plants. Known as "distributed generation", these technologies are more adaptable to the energy situation.

However, even in California with buy-down programs and potentially soaring electricity prices. The payback period for a roof-mounted solar array would be twelve years. This is still out of the range of most business and residential customers. For photovoltaics to move into the mainstream, prices will have to come down. The goals set by the PV industry and the United States Department of Energy will have to be met.


While photovoltaics may not be the solution to future energy needs, it can play a significant role in a future energy portfolio. With concern increasing over green house gases and other pollutants, solar modules already carries the image of the quiet, clean source of energy. With aggressive pushes by both the government and the industry, to scale up production, the price of PV can be put within the range of many people. A solar panel on every roof might be a little too much for us to imagine now, but perhaps our grand children will be surprised to see a roof without one.

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