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US utilities closer to taming the sun

By Max Burkhalter
September 17, 2012
One of the things I always loved about the circus is that I never knew what would happen when I showed up. This was especially true when it came to watching the lion tamer. Some days, the lion would just lie down and nap while the tamer pranced around with whip and chair trying to make something happen. Other times, the lion was a bit too active, scaring just about everybody, but not doing any harm. Only the best circuses with the best tamers could get consistent performance out of the moody king of the cats.

In many ways, solar power is the lion of the renewable energy landscape. Everybody loves the idea of taming the sun for energy, but some days, it's just too cloudy to get anything done. Others, there's so much sun that there's enough energy to power the entire neighborhood, not just the odd house with solar panels on it. But there still isn't any reliable way to store that extra power for use when the sky becomes overcast. In rare cases, utility providers have found ways to use solar farms in conjunction with the traditional grid to make the most of solar energy, but this has been much more common in industrial and commercial settings.

This is changing, as advances in power storage solutions and the rise of the smart grid are creating an environment in which solar energy and other intermittent renewable energy resources could be a much more viable option.

A recent study from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association found that the market for solar power systems is rising in the United States and China. The global market is also growing somewhat, but many emerging markets have slowed. In China, where technological expansion tends to take place in rapid bursts, solar energy investments are booming.

However, the rise is not in any way consistent because large government projects can be followed by immediate stagnation. In the United States, on the other hand, the growth is not nearly as large as it has been in China, but it has been much more consistent with more utility providers working on projects to implement solar energy resources, the study found. While solar power is rising in the country, the growth varies between states, with Massachusetts and New Jersey among the key contributors to the market's rise.

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