By Dana Hull

The amount of new photovoltaic solar panels installed in the United States grew to 3,313 megawatts in 2012, up from 1,887 megawatts in 2011, marking 76 percent growth and another record-breaking year for the American solar industry.

A year-in-review report jointly released Thursday by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association found that more than half of the new installations, or 1,782 megawatts, came from the first wave of large, utility-scale solar power plants coming online in the desert Southwest.

Meanwhile, nearly 83,000 homes were fitted with solar panels, with many homeowners taking advantage of no-money-down solar leases and third-party financing. Residential solar projects totaled 488 megawatts.

And California, which remains the industry's dominant market, became the first state to install over 1,000 megawatts of solar panels in one year.

"There were 16 million solar panels installed in the U.S. last year, and every one of these panels was bolted down by an American," Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the industry association, said in a statement. "We've brought more new solar online in 2012 than in the three prior years combined."

The United States now has more than 300,000 solar installations -- including residential, commercial and utility scale -- totaling 7,221 megawatts.

The boom in installations was fueled, in part, by a continuing fall in prices. Installed PV prices vary from state-to-state and project-to-project, but the average price declined by 27 percent, from $4.10 per watt in 2011 to $3.01 per watt in 2012. Installed costs include both the cost of solar panels as well as "balance of system" costs like wiring and inverters, as well as labor and permits.

Though the fall in prices has hurt solar manufacturers, it's been a boon for businesses and homeowners.

"In the short term, the worse it gets for manufacturers, the better it gets for consumers," said Shayle Kann, vice president of GTM Research.

Solar still counts for less than 1 percent of California's electricity, most of which comes from natural gas, two nuclear power plants and hydropower. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, near San Diego, has been offline since January 2012.

Solar advocates, including Gov. Jerry Brown, want solar to play a key role in the state's energy future, in part because solar projects generate local installation jobs. Brown hopes to add 12,000 megawatts of rooftop solar generation by 2020.

California utilities are well on their way to meeting the state's aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard, which calls for 33 percent of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020. San Francisco-based PG&E has said it expects solar to account for 40 percent of its renewable mix by 2020.

The report also found that in the residential market, third-party ownership models accounted for more than 50 percent of new residential installations in most markets; in Arizona, it's 90 percent. Bay Area companies like SolarCity, SunRun and Sungevity have led the way, offering consumers the chance to go solar via leases or power-purchase agreements.

The U.S. solar market varies widely from state to state, and is heavily influenced by factors like the cost of electricity, the amount of sunlight and incentives for solar from state regulators.

GTM Research expects the growth to continue into 2013, with 4,300 megawatts of new PV installations forecast.

Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.

TOP 10 STATES FOR PHOTOVOLTAIC SOLAR INSTALLATIONS IN 2012
1. California, 1,033 megawatts installed
2. Arizona, 710 Mw
3. New Jersey, 415 Mw
4. Nevada, 198 Mw
5. North Carolina, 132 Mw
6. Massachusetts, 129 Mw
7. Hawaii, 109 Mw
8. Maryland, 74 Mw
9. Texas, 64 Mw
10. New York, 60 Mw

One megawatt is enough to power about 750 to 1,000 homes. But because the sun doesn't shine all the time, solar industry experts typically say that 1 megawatt of solar power capacity is sufficient to power about 200 households.

Source: GTM Research and SEIA