Like all emerging technologies, renewable power continues to struggle with the challenge of cost competitiveness. Despite the rhetoric, hype and popular support, traditional sources of power still enjoy the advantage in energy markets, while renewable proponents and researchers strive to drive down costs and increase the output and efficiency. Until they can achieve a more favorable balance, subsidies and other forms of government incentives are needed to keep their growing industries viable.

However, according to the findings of a recent study, at least one renewable-power industry may be approaching a tipping point. The study by the Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Energy Insights finds that, increasingly, innovation is contributing to the growth in photovoltaics (PV). This is telling for observers who await for the day when the benefits of solar power will pay for themselves, without the help of government, something industry proponents and taxpayers can celebrate together.

The IDC study, “Business Strategy: Trends to Watch as the Rate of North American Solar PV Installations Doubles in 2011,” predicts a 100 percent increase in the rate of solar installations in North America, from 1 gigawatt (GW) last year to 2 GW in 2011.

“While subsidies undeniably underpin much of this growth, the young solar industry has been rapidly innovating in ways that make solar PV systems more cost effective, easier to install and easier to maintain,” said Jay Holman, lead analyst for IDC’s Renewable Energy Strategies program.

The study, which was released in December 2010, points to several factors that are contributing to the industry’s growth. They include further cost reductions for components and installation labor, attractive feed-in tariffs and solar carve-outs in state-level renewable portfolio standards (RPS), solar leasing and power purchase agreements (PPAs) to residential and commercial property owners, and the movement of intelligence from central inverters to PV modules.