Solar power is casting a bigger shadow

Does having your own solar power installation sound appealing? It apparently does to a growing number of American businesses and homeowners who are investing in what many tout as a cleaner and less expensive source of electricity. And that trend of buying into solar power is also growing internationally.

During 2014's second quarter, photovoltaic (PV) installations in the U.S. went over the gigawatt mark for the third consecutive quarter, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). A gigawatt is equivalent to the amount of power needed for around 750,000 homes.

And while commercial solar power is still in its infancy (the Institute for Energy Research says solar makes up just 0.2 percent of the net energy produced in the U.S.), homes and businesses with solar panels are no longer considered an oddity. The SEIA says more than a half-million homes and businesses now have solar installations, and during the first half of 2014, 53 percent of all new electric capacity was from solar power.

Solar energy costs are also dropping. A report by the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory says the cost of energy sold to utilities from large-scale solar power operations has fallen by more than 70 percent since 2008.

"This marked the fourth consecutive year of significant price reductions for residential and commercial systems in the U.S.," Galen Barbose, one of the report's authors, said in a statement.

The solar industry has also become an important source of jobs for Americans. A report by the nonprofit Solar Foundation found the industry employs more than 142,000 Americans at a rate that's growing 10 times faster than the national employment rate.

And as the Atlantic hurricane season continues, some analysts look to solar power as an important resource to help high-population regions withstand the impact of disasters such as 2012's Superstorm Sandy. That monster knocked out power to more than 7 million people along the U.S. East Coast.

A report published earlier this month by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, noted many Northeastern states are now considering solar-powered "microgrids" to protect essential buildings and operations against large-scale outages of the "macrogrid" and to minimize any economic damage from a long-term power outage.

Internationally, 2014 is expected to be a strong year for PV solar installations. The research group IHS Technology projects PV installations will rise globally to 45.4 gigawatts, with a third of those taking place in the fourth quarter alone.

Powering that "major acceleration," as described by IHS's senior director of solar research, is the U.S. and China, which are expected to account for over half of the world's solar installations during the fourth quarter.

Despite declines in some European nations, IHS is forecasting that the U.K. will become the world's fourth-largest solar power market this year, after China, Japan and the U.S. It also predicts the solar power market to slow down but "remain solid" for 2015.