CARL FRANZEN DECEMBER 14, 2011, 3:20 PM 707 5
What Solyndra? Despite the unfortunate high-profile bankruptcy of the Freemont, California solar company and several other major U.S. solar firms, the third quarter was the best yet in the history of the American solar industry, at least so far as total power generation was concerned.

Over 449 megawatts-worth of photovoltaic solar energy facilities, enough to power 90,000 homes, were installed across in the country between July and September, according to a report published Wednesday by market research company GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

That’s a 140 percent increase from the same quarter last year and a 39 percent increase over the second quarter of 2011. It’s also more solar power than was installed during the entirety of 2009.

“The U.S. solar industry is on a roll, with unprecedented growth in 2011,” said Rhone Resch, President and CEO of SEIA, in a press release. “Solar is now an economic force in dozens of states, creating jobs across America.”

The growth was driven by a sudden turn-around in the residential market, up 21 percent after two quarters of consecutive declines, and an even greater surge in the utility-scale solar market (that is, solar installations put up for, and by, utilities companies), up a whopping 47 percent.

23 utility installations alone accounted for 200 megawatts of photovoltaic solar during the period, a 400 percent increase form the second quarter and more than all types of solar installations in any single quarter up until the third quarter of 2010. The largest of these utility solar projects are located in Arizona, New Mexico and California.

But the underlying catalyst for more utilities turning to the sun for power was government funding. As the report’s authors come right out and admit: “Much of this growth is due to the Department of Treasury’s 1603 program, which is due to expire on Dec. 31 unless Congress extends it.”

The 1603 program was created under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the federal Stimulus Package, to provide grants to reimburse qualifying businesses for installing solar projects on their properties, paying up to 30 percent of the cost of the installations.

So far, the program has leveraged about $23 billion in private sector investment for this purpose, according to 34 Senate democrats, who on Thursday sent a letter to Senate leaders calling for an extension of the program. A day earlier, 88 Democrats in the House signed a similar letter.

Solar companies and their trade organization, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) are unsurprisingly most keen on extending the program. The SEIA rounded up 750 companies in, or tangentially involved in, the solar industry, to send a letter to Congress to this effect, saying even a one-year extension would result in an “additional 37,394 jobs,” and 2 gigawatts of solar energy by 2016.

But given the “shadow” of the Solyndra bankruptcy looming over Congress,
the chances for the program’s extension don’t look good, according to National Journal.

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