U.S. companies installed 1,286 MW of solar energy in 2019, marking the second-largest year for commercial solar installations, according to a Wednesday report by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Apple and Amazon remain atop the group's corporate solar rankings.
Solar installations by U.S. companies peaked in 2017 on the back of record off-site solar deployment; on-site and rooftop installations continue to grow and set a new record in 2019.
The overall upward trend is expected to continue, according to SEIA, as top U.S. firms accelerate their renewable energy targets and solar becomes increasingly accessible to small and mid-sized firms.
U.S. businesses continue to show growing interest in owning and installing their own solar and renewable energy projects. Although 2019 was not a record-setting year for commercial installations, SEIA does not expect enthusiasm in this sector will wane any time soon.
Commercial solar deployments increased 10% in 2019, according to SEIA's 2019 Solar Means Business Report, including a record 844 MW installed on-site. Off-site installations peaked in 2017, according to the report, but U.S. companies still added 441 MW of off-site solar generation in 2019. The report projects that off-site installations will grow to represent 60% of commercial solar projects within the next three years, thanks to the lack of space constraints.
"If you think about a company like Facebook, they have a large electricity load because they run data centers," said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of SEIA. "But data centers don't have to be huge like warehouses. You're going to have more offsite procurement, as more companies with large energy loads continue to choose to go solar."
Steep price declines — roughly 30% over the last five years, according to SEIA — have driven commercial adoption of solar energy by enabling companies to install larger systems with the same budgets established years ago. At the same time, many U.S. corporations have leveled up their renewable energy ambition, increasing the size of their generation goals and decreasing the time allotted to meet them.
Walmart, for example, announced new goals in September of eliminating the company's carbon emissions by the year 2040, and using 100% renewable energy to power its facilities by 2035. Previously the company had aimed for 50% renewable energy by 2025, according to Steve Chriss, director of energy services for Walmart.
"When you think about the scale of the goal, it's fairly daunting, but the company has really put its full weight behind this," Chriss said. "We're definitely happy about the progress we have been able to make, because I've been at Walmart for 13 years, and I know where the cost of renewable energy was when I started vs. where it is now."
Recent events have also created a sense of urgency with respect to the company's climate goals, he added.
"What we've seen of late between wildfires, hurricanes, and other climate-related events, accelerated both the speed and timeframe," he said. "Because previously 100% was just aspirational. Now we have a time dimension to it. We saw the need to accelerate and move faster toward taking power from cleaner sources."
Apple and Amazon continue to top SEIA's Solar Means Business rankings with 389 MW and 369 MW of installed solar, respectively. Walmart jumped to third place in 2019 after deploying the largest amount of new solar of any U.S. company last year. To date, the global company sources 29% of its total power use from renewable sources, according to Chriss.
Walmart expects to set new company records for solar deployment in the years to come, according to Chriss.
"We have a lot of momentum going into 2020," he said, with significant growth planned for 2021 as well.
Smaller companies have also shown an interest in solar, and their ability to invest in installations of their own has grown over the years as more solar companies develop farms from which multiple commercial users can contract to buy power, Hopper said.
"If we look at this year's commercial installations, about two-thirds of all commercial capacity installed was from companies that aren't Fortune 500," she said. "They aren't companies making headlines. They're smaller companies that want to do it for their own reasons, many of which are economic. A huge number of small to mid-tier businesses want to do that, and we're nowhere near saturation."