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Solar industry in rapid growth

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The sun is blazing across the U.S. solar industry.

bizO-RobinsonAvila_Kevin_BizOAs of year-end 2014, total installed solar generating capacity reached 20.2 gigawatts nationwide, according to preliminary estimates by the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association. That’s enough electricity to power nearly four million homes and it represents a 55 percent leap from the 13 gigawatts of installed capacity reported at year-end 2013.

To put that in perspective, today’s solar generation is enough to power every single home in a state the size of Massachusetts or New Jersey. And in the next two years, installed capacity is expected to double again, with another 20 gigawatts of new capacity already in the pipeline for 2015 and 2016, said SEIA President Rhone Resch.

“Last year, solar installations were 70 times higher than they were in 2006 – and today there’s nearly 30 times more solar capacity online nationwide,” Resch said in a statement this month. “We’ve gone from being an $800 million industry in 2006 to a $15 billion industry today.”

A pair of Affordable Solar Group workers install a PV system on the roof of a Los Lunas home. The Albuquerque-based firm was projecting $48 million in revenue for 2014. (Journal File)

A pair of Affordable Solar Group workers install a PV system on the roof of a Los Lunas home. The Albuquerque-based firm was projecting $48 million in revenue for 2014. (Journal File)

All that growth is shining brightly on New Mexico, as well. Homegrown solar companies are reaping huge benefits in the local, national and international markets, with some companies reporting downright spectacular growth.

As of December, Affordable Solar Group – an Albuquerque-based company that sells and installs solar systems internationally – was projecting $48 million in revenue for 2014. That’s up from $31 million in revenue in 2013 and just $8.46 million in 2007.

That firm has made the Flying 40 list of fast-growing companies three years in a row.

“Most of our growth is outside of New Mexico,” said Affordable Solar President Ryan Centerwall. “We’ve opened new locations in the Caribbean, and in California and Las Vegas (Nev.). But the New Mexico market is also still doing very well.”

New Mexico has more than 60 companies around the state, including solar photovoltaic installers, manufacturers, distributors, project developers and firms that provide financing, engineering and legal support.

As of 2013, the Solar Foundation – a Washington, D.C.-based research organization that conducts an annual National Solar Jobs Census – estimated about 1,900 people were employed in New Mexico’s solar industry.

Although state-level estimates for 2014 are not yet available, the newest Solar Foundation census reported a 31,000 jump in jobs nationwide last year, from about 143,000 employees in 2013 to nearly 174,000.

Some individual companies in New Mexico said they accelerated their hiring last year. Affordable Solar, for example, grew its workforce from 90 in 2013 to 165, Centerwall said.

Positive Energy Solar, which installs PV systems throughout New Mexico, hired 30 people in just the past six months, growing its workforce to 75 people statewide, said CEO Regina Wheeler. The company, which has offices in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces, moved its Albuquerque location last fall from a 5,000-square-foot office to a 20,000-square-foot space.

“We’ve seen explosive growth in demand around the state,” Wheeler said. “We doubled our revenue (in 2014) to $20 million from about $10 million in 2013.”

Other companies say they’re growing at a steady clip as well. Consolidated Solar Technologies, an Albuquerque-based PV installer with about 60 employees, reports double-digit expansion.

“We’re cruising along at about a 15 percent growth rate each year,” said owner Jerry Mosher.

Both utility scale and residential solar systems are expanding.

Public Service Company of New Mexico added 23 MW of solar installations to its system last year, bringing its total installed capacity to 67 MW. It plans to add another 40 MW this year.

First Solar Inc. also opened a 50 MW solar plant in southern New Mexico in June to supply power to El Paso Electric Co.

On the rooftop front, PNM said 4,400 of its customers had installed solar systems as of mid-December. That’s up from 3,300 18 months ago.

Plummeting prices have helped drive the local and national markets. Since 2010, the cost for installing a rooftop solar system has dropped by more than 50 percent and for utility scale systems by 70 percent, according to the SEIA.

Federal and state tax breaks, state-level renewable energy mandates, and incentive programs for residential and commercial customers to install systems have all contributed to robust growth.

That expansion is expected to continue this year and next. But it’s unclear what will happen after 2017, because many incentive programs are now winding down or disappearing across the country and the federal tax break is scheduled to drop from 30 percent now to 10 percent by year-end 2016. Moreover, the electric industry has begun pushing for new policies in many states that could reduce the benefits of customer-sited systems.

In New Mexico, for example, PNM wants to impose a new monthly charge of $6 for every kilowatt of solar energy a customer installs to help the utility pay for fixed costs to maintain the electric grid.

Local industry leaders say that and other proposed changes to the state’s “net-metering” program – which allows solar customers to sell excess power back to the grid – could slow or stop industry expansion here if approved by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. The industry says it will fight those proposals at the PRC this year.

But even if approved, growth of residential installations would likely accelerate in late 2015 and in 2016 as homeowners and businesses rush to install systems before tax breaks and incentives disappear.

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