Three Decades of Solar Energy Growth in the US

An alumnus of City College of New York and New York Medical College, Peter “Pete” Killcommons, MD, is the CEO of Medweb, a medical software and device company based in San Francisco. Outside of running the company’s radiology and telemedicine operations, Dr. Peter Killcommons has a keen interest in solar power adoption in America.

According to estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), solar energy consumption in the country grew from 0.06 trillion British thermal units (Btu) in 1984 to 1,044 trillion Btu in 2019. In addition, solar energy generation grew from 5 million kWh in 1984 to 107,057 million kWh in 2019. Of this, 64 percent was utility-scale PV power plants and 33 percent small scale PV systems producing less than 1 MW of power.

The amount of solar energy the earth receives every day is many multiples higher than the amount of energy humans consume each day. However, solar radiation is not available at all times of the day. In addition, clouds, pollution, and dust can lower the amount of solar radiation that reaches the surface of the earth. Generally, arid areas in lower latitudes (in the Northern Hemisphere) tend to receive the highest solar energy per day. In the US, these are southwestern states like California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Other states that receive plenty of sunshine are Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Texas.

Not surprisingly, some of these states lead the country in solar power generation. California had the highest utility scale solar electricity generation in 2019, producing 28.62 billion kWh, followed by North Carolina with 7.292 billion kWh and Arizona with 5.109 billion kWh. With regard to small-scale solar PV electricity generation, California was also the highest producer with 15.181 billion kWh, followed by Arizona at 2.574 billion kWh and New Jersey with 2.202 billion kWh. In addition to a region’s solar power potential, state incentives for solar energy usage also encourage adoption.

The Potential of Solar-solutions in Developing Regions of the Globe

By Dr. Peter Killcommons

As CEO of Medweb, I focus on medical technology solutions through worldwide installations of web-enabled telemedicine systems, particularly in regions with less than optimal communications and power infrastructure. Solar energy provides one interesting power-generation solution to these communities and I have a keen interest in thermal and photovoltaic solar technologies.

Solar energy may ultimately prove one of the least-expensive and most environmentally friendly forms of renewable energy, as sunlight is abundant in many regions of the globe. Unfortunately, the up-front price tag of solar energy installations make them cost-prohibitive in much of the developing world, even in areas that receive abundant year-round sunlight and could best utilize the technology. International and regional organizations, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, are well positioned to promote low-cost financing mechanisms, mitigating the financial risk posed by solar energy investments.

Women in Rural Benin Often Carry Water from Far Distances. Solar-powered Drip Irrigation Systems Offer a Sensible Alternative.

Private institutions are actively bridging the solar divide, often in creative ways less tied-up in bureaucracy than their public counterparts. Last year, Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment teamed up with the nonprofit Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), setting up solar-powered drip irrigation systems in poverty-stricken rural communities in Benin, Africa. While the upfront costs of each 1.24-acre system was a substantial $18,000 and yearly costs were nearly $6,000, the system is estimated to pay for itself within 2.3 years. This is because of increased yield of high value agricultural commodities such as tomatoes, eggplants, okra, peppers, and carrots. In addition, the solar agriculture system saves inefficient trips to distant water sources, where water was traditionally brought back to the village in buckets, on foot. Other long-term benefits of the system, such as significant decreases in child malnutrition, are not so easily quantified.

The Woods Institute for the Environment project shares similarities with some of the localized, grassroots projects I have undertaken through Medweb. The projects occurred in numerous places around the world, like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Peru. In November 2009, I helped finance a new well for a small village near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, while on a humanitarian trip to install medical equipment and train doctors. I am very interested in exploring the ways in which cost-effective solar technologies can be integrated with Medweb’s telemedicine systems in the future.