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Pandemic winners mirror US commercial solar growth engines

17 November 2020 Keiron Greenhalgh

The big tech companies driving stock indexes higher in recent months are also the biggest corporate users of solar power in the US, although that other beneficiary of the coronavirus pandemic, the grocery store owner, is not lagging too far behind.

The 8th Solar Means Business Report from the Solar Energy Industries Association shows American businesses installed 15 times more solar capacity in 2019 than a decade earlier.

Apple and Amazon remained top of the pile at the end of 2019 at 398.3MW and 369MW of installed capacity, respectively. Something of a mirror for Amazon's exponential growth as a company and user of solar energy can be seen in the jump in the latter number between 2019 and 2015, when it had no installed capacity.

Walmart, which installed the most solar capacity of any commercial entity in 2019 and increased its solar use by 35%, took the final spot on the podium with 331MW.

Last year was the top year yet for onsite commercial solar installations with 845MW installed. But overall, 2019 trailed 2017 in annual corporate capacity installations by a margin of 1,285.9MW to 1,372.7MW, while topping the previous year's 1,166.6MW.

The price of installing an onsite commercial photovoltaic solar system declined 12% year on year in 2019 to $2.34/watt on average and slumped 30% over the past five years, according to the report. In 2019, the average size of such installations increased 20.25% to 246.7kW from 205.15kW and over the past five years the average size soared 61.32%.

While size obviously matters when looking at overall capacity figures, when it comes to the number of installations, retailers are where the story is.

Grocery and department stores dominate the top 10 for installations, and Target beat out Walmart to claim top spot in this table. Target had 513 installations at the end of 2019, compared with Walmart's 391, according to the SEIA. They were joined in the top 10 by Walgreens, Kohl's, Aldi, Macy's, and Costco.

Solar Means Business Top 10

Apple, which also had the most off-site solar installed through 2019, recently committed to making its supply chain and products 100% carbon neutral by 2030.

"The choice between a healthy planet and good business strategy has always been a false one, and we've proved that with a company that runs on 100% clean energy and a supply chain transitioning to do the same," said Lisa Jackson, Apple Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives.

"Solar power has been part of our environmental journey for more than a decade, and we're grateful to the SEIA for this recognition of the strides we've made, and the strides of two of our suppliers also in the SEIA top 25," she said, adding: "Together, we'll reach our goal of making all our products with a net-zero climate impact by 2030, and hopefully, inspire others to act urgently in defense of our planet and future generations."

"The world's most recognizable brands are walking the walk when it comes to their clean energy commitments,"said Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of SEIA."Businesses are choosing solar energy because it can significantly curb their energy costs and add predictability during these uncertain times. We expect that the corporate sector will make greater investments in solar as businesses make and follow through on clean energy commitments to address the climate crisis."

Meantime, Kathleen McLaughlin, Chief Sustainability Officer at last year's big climber Walmart, said: "Our growth in solar use reflects our ongoing and longstanding commitment to climate action, including getting to 100% renewable energy globally by 2035."

"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding the worst effects of climate change will take sustained, collective action. It's terrific to see so many companies growing their solar use and taking steps towards a renewable future," she added.

Apple's fellow tech behemoth Facebook, also one of the top buyers of off-site solar, made its first appearance in the top 10 overall in 2019 and the biggest leap up the charts, jumping to 9th from 27th on the list.

In what has been the most disruptive of years in many ways, 2020 and the pandemic it will likely be best known for when the histories are written, has not seen a major impact on US business interest in solar, according to the SEIA.

Off-site projects continue to be built and procured with only minor disruptions, the trade group said, and while some smaller companies postponed 2020 rooftop installations, the "pause is only expected to be temporary."

Larger corporates report that the pandemic has not caused them to change or delay their renewable energy goals, it added.

Over the next three years, more than 5GW of off-site corporate solar is expected to come online, SEIA said in the SMB report, supported by a recovering rooftop market. A decline in the investment tax credit will push most installations into the 2021-2023 timeframe, it added, with solar's increasing economic competitiveness supporting growth over the last half of the decade.

Posted 17 November 2020 by Keiron Greenhalgh, Editor, Energy and Natural Resources Group, IHS Markit

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