On July 22, Reuters reported that China had installed 20 gigawatts (GW) of solar power in the first six months of 2016 and solidified its place as either the first or second leading country in solar development (China solar agency says it’s No. 1; the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Trends in Photovoltaic Applications report says China is No. 2 behind only Germany).

Either way, it’s trouncing the United States, who ranks fifth on the IEA list behind such tiny countries as Italy, Japan and Germany (landwise, all three combined could fit in Alaska, with room to spare).

What really caught my eye in the Reuters report, however, was China’s announced plan to install 18.1 GW in its commercial sector this year. In contrast, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) estimates that the commercial solar industry in the United States will grow to just under 1.5 GW total TOTAL — by the end of this year.


Why on earth can’t we do at least as well as China is doing in the commercial market?

After all, it’s not as if it’s a secret that the commercial solar market in the United States is the single largest untapped market in the country. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), “commercial buildings account for 19% of the energy consumed in the United States.” Further, more than two-thirds of that energy are office and retail buildings, educational and health-care buildings, and lodging. So when solar observers talk (and have talked for five years) about the untapped commercial market in the United States, the veins on my neck pop and I instantly get a migraine. Because the refrain that echoes in my head like a shout into the Grand Canyon is this:

What is taking so long?

For years, I’ve heard the arguments. Financing is difficult because the assets can’t always earn credit ratings. It’s hard to figure the incentive split between building owners and tenants. Electricity rates are too low in many regions of the United States to make solar cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Negotiating the permitting processes of 50 different states makes it hard (that’s the most ridiculous argument I’ve ever heard — did anyone think a solar revolution would be easy?).

While I will grant that all these factors do play a role in impeding commercial solar’s growth, I do not accept as settled the notion that we, as one of the most innovative countries on earth, can’t find ways around these challenges, and a Chinese government, whose entrenched bureaucracy makes ours look streamlined in comparison — can. I’m not pretending every business in the United States can — or even wants — to be powered by solar energy. But surely we can find enough commercial solar potential in this country so China doesn’t install 18X as much as we do. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

So those of us in the commercial solar sector must find ways to expand our market, whether it’s creating financing options, standardizing permitting processes so those costs will be fixed (California is getting there) or — here’s a radical idea — create a national energy policy that would encourage all of this development and more (we’ve written about the fact that the Clean Power Plan might get us closer and the role solar can play).

We can either sit idly by and watch China continue its solar-power dominance in the commercial sector, or we can band together to take the fight to them. The choice is ours.