EIA predicts utility-scale solar market contraction in 2018

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), which looks at projected energy markets over the next few years in the United States. And while most of the report is dedicated to fossil fuels, it also supplies rough forecasts for renewable energy.

In line with forecasts by GTM Research, EIA expects contraction in the utility-scale solar market in the United States from 2017 to 2018, with STEO estimating that 5 GW-AC is being installed over the course of 2017, but forecasting only 4 GW-AC in 2018.

This is 20% less than GTM Research’s figures for both 2017 and 2018. Unlike most nations, definitive data on the U.S. solar market is not produced by the government, but instead by GTM Research and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), as GTM Research has long provided more granular and well-researched statistics on solar deployment than any U.S. government agency.

GTM estimates 8.08 GW-DC of utility-scale solar in 20 6.5 GW-DC of utility-scale solar installations in 2018, which at a recommended derate of 77% comes to 6.2 GW-AC in 2017 and 5.0 GW-AC in 2018.

It is notable that GTM Research also expects the utility-scale market to grow again in 2019.

And while STEO’s forecasts are not out of the bounds of reason, there are several details that make the report problematic. The first is that STEO is only measuring utility-scale solar, which GTM Research expects to be 60% of the total market in 2018.

Unfortunately, this is part of a long pattern of EIA overlooking the contributions of distributed generation (DG) solar to the U.S. electricity system, and it was only a few years ago that EIA began including the output of DG solar in its Electric Power Monthly report, the definitive report on many aspects of U.S. electricity markets.

However, according to Carnegie Mellon research Greg Schivley, in January EIA changed which plants are required to report on a monthly basis, including many wind and solar plants. Schivley says this “makes their recent data a little less useful.”

This is also within the context of many years of complaints about EIA’s overly optimistic forecasts of fossil fuels and pessimistic forecasts of renewable energy, which Jigar Shah described as “criminal” in a 2016 interview with pv magazine.