California Has More Solar Power Than France

The state is close to installing 1 gigawatt worth of solar panels on rooftops alone.

In 2007, California committed to install 3,000 megawatts (or 3 gigawatts) of solar power by the end of 2016. Halfway through that time window, the state is close to installing 1 gigawatt worth of solar panels on rooftops alone, according to a report [PDF] by nonprofit group Environment California. According to the state government, the state’s total installed capacity has already exceeded 1 gigawatt. The rate of installation is growing exponentially too, and the state should easily meet its 3 gigawatt goal. By then, the cost of installation will have dropped so much that government subsidies for solar projects will no longer be necessary.

One gigawatt of capacity is a huge amount of solar power. California alone now has more solar power installed than all but a handful of countries. These days, an individual solar panel has a capacity of around 200 watts, so one gigawatt of installed capacity requires about 5 million solar panels. Distributed over tens of thousands of roofs across the state, it’s the equivalent of a coal-fired power plant or two, or a nuclear reactor.

But one gigawatt is a tiny fraction of the total amount of power needed to feed demand. The country as a whole has more than 1,000 gigawatts of electricity generation capacity. In the summer, when needs are highest, California uses more than 65 gigawatts of capacity. California’s 10 largest power plants (all gas, nuclear or hydroelectric plants) are each rated at more than 1 gigawatt. The largest, a gas-fired plant, has a capacity of more than 2.5 gigawatts. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated that the state could have 80 gigawatts of solar power installed, which would provide more than a third of the state’s total electricity needs, according to Environment California.

Right now, about a third of California’s rooftop solar capacity lives on residential buildings. Another third is on commercial properties, and the last third is going onto government and nonprofit buildings. Los Angeles has more megawatts installed than any other county, more than one-10th of the total megawatts installed. But Los Angeles’ municipal utility has only installed about a 10th of what it will need to for the state to meet its overall goals.

Getting to 3 gigawatts of power will require more effort and more monitoring from California’s utilities and its government, but it’s a realistic goal that shows the state's dedication to making renewable energy a reality. Governor Jerry Brown is already looking past 3 gigawatts—he pledged during his campaign to install 12 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2020. It'll be a long time before the country can rid itself of fossil fuels. But California's achievement marks one small milestone along the right path.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user The Star Traveller

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