Small-Scale Solar Installations Are Taking Back The Power Grid

Panels on rooftops, gardens, and commercial buildings are accounting for a rising percentage of new energy production in the U.S.

The world knows it needs to generate more power from clean energy. Fortunately, renewable energy sources are growing, though not nearly as fast as needed. Solar power has seen steady growth in the past couple of years and now accounts for somewhere between 1% to 2% of total power plant capacity in the U.S.


But there is an untold story. When the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) puts together its figures, it only counts relatively large solar units from systems greater than one megawatt. But it turns out that if you add up all those little rooftop solar systems installed on homes, churches, nonprofits, and commercial buildings around the country, it’s making quite a dent in our overall energy production.

John Farrell, the director of democratic energy at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, cross-referenced the statistics from the EIA with those from the Solar Energy Industries Association to get a clearer picture of the evolving U.S. energy landscape. He found that small solar installations accounted for 13% of new power plant capacity across the country, nearly as much as solar farms at 18%. What’s more, small solar has been steadily growing over the past few years.

“This is a complete transformation of the way we’ve generated electricity for the past 100 years,” says Farrell. “For the past century, the trend has been to concentrate capital in these big utilities and build ever-larger power plants to capture economies of scale. Solar energy, in particular, allows us to reverse course on that trend.”

This kind of decentralized energy system is a win not just for the environment, argues Farrell, but also for energy consumers, who are notably now also energy producers. But this is creating conflict between rooftop solar owners and their utilities as individual power producers are able to zero out their utility bills, which cuts into the revenue of the utilities.

“It changes the fundamental nature of the grid with the notion that we can now produce power close to where we use it,” says Farrell. “But it also changes the power dynamic in terms of both political and economic power. We now have all these little individual power producers who may want to see the grid operated in a different way now that they’re no longer just consumers from the system.”

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.