Vegas Sign the Latest Example of Solar Industry's Growth

At least some of the solar energy that happens in Vegas will soon stay in Vegas, powering Sin City's iconic welcome sign by as early as year's end. A recently approved plan will rig fake trees with solar panels to light the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign; ground is set to be broken on the project this fall, reports the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The Vegas sign's switch to solar power is largely symbolic, but it illustrates the industry's recent growth. Driving that growth? Affordability, both in initial costs and long-term payoff, according to a report released Sunday by the financial firm Lazard. Utility-scale solar power has seen the break-even price for energy production (known as the levelized cost of energy) drop by more than 50 percent since 2009. "Utility-scale solar (photovoltaics) is a competitive source of peak energy as compared with conventional generation in many parts of the world, without any subsidies," Lazard stated.

Despite its cost-effectiveness, the viability of utility-scale solar is still uncertain at the residential level, the report said. "Residential-scale solar [photovoltaics] in the United States (and elsewhere) is benefiting from the concentration of multiple levels of federal tax subsidies, state-level tax subsidies, and/or feed-in tariffs. Currently, residential-scale solar PV remains expensive by comparison to utility-scale solar PV."

Subsidies may be needed to make solar power palatable for homeowners, but industry statistics suggest they are having the desired effect. Since the second quarter of 2012, the residential solar market has grown 48 percent, according to a Solar Market Insight report conducted by the Solar Energy Industries Association and Greentech Media's GTM Research. The full report — including additional numbers on solar affordability — will be released Thursday.

And solar isn't the only alternative energy source to see a sudden boost in affordability. Wind power, Lazard says, has dropped its levelized cost of energy more than 50 percent over the past four years. While wind power's capital costs are similar to solar's, it is even more competitive when it comes to break-even energy pricing.

The report also notes the difficulties facing more-traditional energy sources, such as coal and nuclear. Along with high costs, the specter of "policy uncertainty" looms, as Congress and the Obama administration wrangle over climate regulations. Still, given the government's mixed — and controversial — record on backing solar projects, the industry might be on its own as it tries to gain traction as a major energy supplier.

Solar has a long way to go before it can power a significant part of the nation's electricity needs. Right now, renewable electricity makes up just 12 percent of the total supply, according to data from the Energy Information Administration, and solar generates just 1 percent of all renewable electricity — a miniscule fraction of the total U.S. supply.