For those who follow the solar industry, sometimes it's important to take a step back and see where the industry stands and how it got where it is today. Below I've compiled some of the most compelling statistics in solar, from the growth of the industry in the U.S. to the cost of companies supplying solar to the market. Just take a look at how far the industry has come.

U.S. solar growth
The U.S. solar industry installed 742 MW of PV in the second quarter of 2012, up 45% sequentially and 116% annually. This is despite the expiration of the 1603 Treasury Grant Program, a policy that allowed solar installers to get a cash grant in lieu of a future tax credit; the industry has now installed 2.85 GW of solar.

The cost to install solar is dropping like a rock
Every quarter the solar industry takes another step toward grid parity in locations around the world, even passing it in some locations.

  • According to GTM Research, the cost to install a utility scale solar system has fallen 45.8% since the beginning of 2010 to $2.60 per watt.
  • Over the same time frame, residential solar installations have dropped 21.8% to $5.46 per watt.

I bet you didn't know
Corporate America has taken a surprisingly quick liking to solar power in recent years -- the companies installing solar might surprise you. The Solar Energy Industries Association, or SEIA, just released the top 20 corporate users and here are the top five:

  1. Walmart comes in first with 65 MW installed.
  2. Costco has installed 38.9 MW.
  3. Kohl's has 36.5 MW of capacity.
  4. IKEA has installed solar on 79% of its stores for a total of 21.5 MW of solar.
  5. Macy's rounds out the top five with 16.2 MW of installed solar.

For the complete report from SEIA, click here.

Random solar stats
Here are some solar stats you can throw around when debating with your friends:

  • $0 -- That's what it will cost you to install solar panels on your house through programs by Solar City, SunRun, SunPower (NAS: SPWR) , and potentially others around the country.
  • 125,273 -- The number of solar projects installed in California, which total 1,312 MW of solar energy.
  • $0.87 -- Blended average module sale price per watt in Q2 2012, down 44% from a year ago.
  • $0.63 -- The cost per watt at First Solar's (NAS: FSLR) best plant.
  • 0.135 euro -- Feed-in-tariff rate for a rooftop system in Germany, below the cost of residential electricity.
  • $32,453 -- The cost of the average residential solar system in the U.S. The average system was 5.9 kW, and estimates are that third-party financing helped pay for 70%-80% of these installations in major markets like California, Colorado, and Arizona.
  • 10.4 cents -- The cost per kW-hr of SunPower's newly signed 100 MW Henrietta Plant in Kings County, California. For a comparison, the average retail cost of electricity in California this year is 15.24 cents per kW-hr.
  • 9.2 GW -- The amount of utility scale solar projects under development in the U.S. as of July 15, 2012, according to GTM Research; 27.1 GW are in the pre-contract phase.

What it all means
The falling cost of solar and the growing number of solar installations provide a huge opportunity for those in the space. Ameresco (NYS: AMRC) is in the business of building PV systems and other energy efficiency projects around the country and should start to pick up business as solar grows. First Solar and SunPower are in different places in the market, building modules and large solar projects, but both likely have a place in solar's future.

But, growth hasn't led to financial gains for investors because companies are selling polysilicon, wafers, cells, and modules at close to cost. Three companies I would be wary of are Renesola (NYS: SOL) , LDK Solar (NYS: LDK) , and Suntech Power. Each has a heavy debt load, anemic margins, or both -- not a position you want to be in as a company.

Investors and bystanders alike have been shocked by First Solar's precipitous drop over the last 12 months, and now the stakes have never been higher for the company. Are they done for good, or ready for a rebound?If you're looking for our recommendation on how to play First Solar, along with continuing updates and guidance on the company whenever news breaks, we've created a brand new report that details every must-know side of this stock. To get started, just click here now.

The article Solar Stats That Will Blow Your Mind originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Travis Hoium owns shares of SunPower in both personal and managed accounts. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool, check out his personal stock holdings or follow his CAPS picks at TMFFlushDraw. The Motley Fool owns shares of Costco Wholesale. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Costco Wholesale and Ameresco. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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