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Solar power coming on strong

Associated Press

When Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) unveiled his Republican House Budget plan a few weeks ago, he specifically criticized two U.S. solar projects as examples of "ill-fated ventures" that received federal loan guarantees from the Obama administration.

Even for Ryan, it was an odd thing to complain about. The two projects the congressman called out -- Solar Reserve's solar tower in Nevada and Sempra Energy's Mesquite Solar complex in Arizona -- are both doing quite well. Solar Reserve chief executive Kevin B. Smith, who wrote a letter to Ryan to explain why his business is an American "success story," told the Washington Post he has "no idea" why the Budget Committee chairman made the charge.

Asked why Ryan calls the businesses "ill-fated ventures," the congressman's spokesperson dodged the question and changed the subject.

There is, of course, a larger point to this: not only are the companies Ryan doesn't like succeeding, but the entire solar industry is starting to boom. Bloomberg News reports that, as of this year, solar power "will be the second-biggest source of generating capacity added to the U.S. electric grid."

Rooftop solar systems can be installed for about $4 a watt and utility-scale systems for $2 a watt, Harris said. "We can see our way to $1.50," he said. "At those kinds of costs, we're competitive in the Southwest with conventional electricity."

Panel prices have fallen almost 69 percent in the past two years, benefiting companies such as Recurrent that purchase and install the equipment and sell electricity from the systems to utilities. Falling costs also have enabled developers to accept lower-priced contracts. First Solar Inc. has signed a power purchase agreement for a project in New Mexico that will sell electricity at a lower rate than new coal plants earn.

All told, the U.S. is on track to add about 4.2 gigawatts of solar generating capacity using photovoltaic technology this year, which would be up from 3.3 gigawatts, which was a 76% increase on 2011's totals.

This is not what Republicans want to hear -- the party's 2012 presidential candidate said solar doesn't count as "real energy" and Fox News recently suggested the solar industry is "tanking our economy" -- but the facts are not in dispute. The only "ill-fated ventures" to be found are the right's talking points on energy policy.