New solar projects are being installed in the U.S. at a record pace, but the pace of growth has slowed.
Nowhere is that slowing down more than in California, where the first major solar projects opened in June.
The state’s largest utility, Southern California Edison, says that it expects to have 25 gigawatts of solar power by the end of 2021.
That’s up from just nine gigawatts in 2018, when the state was on pace for just 4.2 gigawatts.
Now that growth has stopped, it seems likely that the rate of growth will slow down again.
“The rate of expansion is going to be slowing down as we continue to build and test these new projects,” says David Smith, the head of the utility’s Solar Energy Systems Business Division.
In California, utilities and energy producers are looking to get off the grid quickly to begin with.
“It’s a very short window of time to get these projects built, which is the key to getting solar on the market,” says Jeff Miro, president and CEO of the Edison Electric Institute.
So why are solar projects still coming on?
“There are some key challenges associated with those projects that are preventing us from getting them built,” Smith says.
One of those is cost.
“We need to get a fair deal with utilities and have a way to make sure we can get solar on their grid,” Miro says.
Another challenge is reliability.
Utilities in California are building about a third of the new solar capacity they need to make it economically viable, but they’re only building a third at a time, he says.
That means the utility has to make a lot of decisions about how much of its energy it will use, and how often.
Miro points to California’s massive grid failures, like the failure of a large portion of the state’s electricity system in 2012.
The grid is expected to be fully operational again in 2019, but it’s not entirely clear how much solar power will be needed.
Mihaly Sutskever, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, says the grid is an enormous logistical nightmare, and it’s going to take time for utilities to ramp up the efficiency of their systems.
“I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait before we see more solar power coming on the system,” Sutskeskever says.
“When we see a lot more of these projects going online, it’s the time when we’ll really see that the grid will start to work.”
That’s not good news for the climate.
Sutsikeskever also says it’s a waste of time and money to wait for the sun to rise over the Pacific Ocean, which would be a much better time to start looking for solar.
“That’s not going to happen anytime soon,” he says, pointing to the solar power that’s already being installed.
In the meantime, it will be up to utilities and producers to work together to find ways to get solar onto their grid, and to keep solar on it.
“You can’t do that alone,” says Miro.
“This is a huge opportunity.”