California's Solar Dominance, In One Graph

New government data show how the Golden State compares to the rest of the country—and it’s not even close.

When it comes to solar power in the U.S., California’s in a league of its own.

The home of Hollywood, Yosemite, and the Golden Gate Bridge also boasts almost half of the nation’s roughly 20,000 megawatts of overall solar capacity, new data from the Energy Information Administration show. Even more striking, in both types of utility-scale solar—photovoltaic and thermal—California operates more capacity than every other state combined. The next runner up is Arizona, at one-fifth of California’s solar might.

This is more than a fun fact, because it didn’t happen by accident; the solar supremacy resulted from years of policies carefully designed to nourish the fledgling clean power sector and take it mainstream. California passed a law in 2006 to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. That forced a slew of other policies to make that goal possible, like laws to compensate customers who produced more power from rooftop solar than they consumed and requiring utilities to purchase a certain amount of power from solar plants. Last year state leaders also set a goal of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030.

That level of determination puts California in the ranks of countries like Denmark and Germany, which have made clean energy a major national priority. But the good news for the other states is they don’t have to worry about inventing a model for solar success: they can look at what California did and find ways to adapt it to their local needs. In fact, that’s vital to the success of U.S. commitments to fighting climate change.

“The lessons from the Californias, the Denmarks, the Germanys have to really spread,” Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley told The New York Times last fall. “It doesn’t do us much good if a few places are really green, if the overall trajectory doesn’t change.”

About the Author

  • Julian Spector is an editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.