Why Chile has emerged as a big solar market

It might surprise you to learn that Latin America — including Mexico, South America, Central America, and the Caribbean — was the region that showed the fastest growth in history for solar panel projects last year, according to a recent report from GTM Research. While the area’s 625 MW worth of solar panels installed in 2014 might look small compared to the estimated 6.5 GW installed in the U.S. during the same time (1000 MW = 1 GW), the annual growth rate for Latin America was a staggering 370 percent between 2013 and 2014, while the U.S. was just 36 percent.

Why did that happen? Well, more than three quarters of that growth in Latin America came from the quick emergence of solar panel projects being installed in Chile — in particular, in the high, hot, flat, barren desert lands of Northern Chile. The Atacama Desert has some of the world’s most intense sunlight and an area of 40,000 square miles.

For example, just two weeks ago a 70 MW solar panel farm — one of the largest in the world built to sell power on the wholesale market — was completed by SunPower in El Salvador in the Atacama Desert. The site uses 160,000 solar panels on single-axis trackers built on 328 acres leased from the Chilean government. The solar system can provide the equivalent electricity for 70,000 Chilean homes.

First Solar is building what could be the largest solar project in Latin America, a 141 MW solar panel farm called the Luz del Norte Solar Power Plant, north of the city of Copiapó, Chile. That site is expected to be finished by the end of 2015, will use 1.7 million of First Solar’s solar modules, and will produce enough electricity for over 173,962 homes.

The Topaz solar panel farm, that uses First Solar panels in CA.

The Topaz solar panel farm that uses First Solar panels.

Because of the unique geography of northern Chile, it’s one of the most productive solar regions in the world. And there’s also a growing desire for power in the area, from mining and other industries that are ready to buy up as much solar power as the local utilities and power markets are willing to generate.

All of this means that Chile has emerged as one of the areas in the world where solar panels are truly competitive economically, even without subsidies. In the U.S., the federal investment tax credit and loan guarantee programs, as well as state mandates like California’s renewable portfolio standard, have largely pushed the solar market. While Chile does have some solar incentives, the economics are good before they kick in.

In Chile, financial institutions are eager to back projects and new business models around solar projects have emerged. The U.S. government’s development finance institution, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), financed 70 percent of the $200 million El Salvador project through long-term non-recourse project debt.

Despite the fast growth rate, it will take several more years for the Chilean solar market to grow to muliple gigawatts. Chile is expected to have another solar boom in 2015.

Looking for a job? Try the solar industry

The growth rate for jobs in the solar industry last year was almost 20 times higher than the national average employment growth rate in the U.S., according to a new report out from non-profit The Solar Foundation. In 2014, 31,000 new solar jobs were created, delivering a U.S. solar workforce of 173,807, which was 21.8 percent bigger than the U.S. solar workforce back in November 2013.

The solar industry now represents 1.3 percent of all jobs in the U.S., making it larger than some fossil fuel sectors like coal mining. And it grew faster than some growing fossil fuel industries did last year, adding more jobs in 2014 than both the oil and gas pipeline construction industry, and the crude petroleum and natural gas extraction industry.

First Solar panels at Agua Caliente

First Solar panels at Agua Caliente

Over the past four years about 81,000 solar jobs were created, showing growth of 86 percent over four years. These are jobs like installers of rooftops solar systems and ground-mounted solar systems, solar sales and marketers, and corporate jobs at big American solar companies like First Solar, SunEdison, SunPower and SolarCity (added 4,000 jobs in 2014).

Two huge solar panel farms just went online in California, which employed about 400 workers each. For the first three quarters of 2014, more than one third (36 percent) of the new electricity capacity built out in the U.S. came from solar systems, according to a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

This year the solar sector expects to add another 36,000 jobs, showing even more growth in 2015, says The Solar Foundation. At the same time, the solar industry is worried that if the federal incentive, the investment tax credit, is lowered (it’s set to expire but could be renewed) in the near future, it could curb some of the recent growth in the sector.

The U.S. solar market is booming this year

The U.S. solar market is shaping up to be larger than anticipated and could end up installing nearly 3.3 GW of solar panels in 2012, a roughly 18 percent jump from the previous forecast of 2.8 GW, according to a report released Wednesday.

Solar industry sounds battle cry

This week’s gathering of the solar industry in Dallas at a conference will become a temporary central command for solar energy advocates who see an urgent need to fight back against negative public sentiment about solar that resulted from Solyndra’s federal loan and bankruptcy.

Solar v. wind: which gets more government love?

As key programs from the stimulus package draw to a close, we look at how wind and solar power plant projects compete for same pots of money. The scores: solar gets more loan guarantees while wind gets more grants.

Christmas Gift for Clean Power: Extended Tax Package

It’s official: A beloved federal grant program for renewable energy generation projects gets to live for another year. President Obama signed a tax package on Friday that extended the grant program. Champagne, please.