by :  You could take the two big, fat reports on the chaotic state of global clean energy development that came out today in practically any direction you want,but let’s start with these two items:Solar usurped wind as the top target for investment dollars and the United States had a spectacular 2011.Worldwide investment in solar was up 52 percent last year, making up $147 billion of the record $257 billion that was poured into renewable power and fuels, according to the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment report [PDF] compiled by the UN, Frankfurt School and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

solar power investment

image via BrightSource Energy

The United States was responsible for a big part of that record-breaking number, as investment grew by 57 percent to $51 billion, putting the U.S. just $1 billion behind China, the world leader again, as it was in 2010 and 2009. U.S. clean-energy backers are cautioned against getting too cocky, however: Driving the U.S. surge was a rush to take advantage of expiring incentive programs, like the production tax credit.

Many observers are forecasting a bleak 2013 if incentives aren’t revived or renewed. The head of the wind-turbine giant Vestas said on Sunday that the U.S. turbine market could plunge 80 percent next year because of the PTC expiration, Reuters reported.

But back to solar: Almost 30 gigawatts (GW) of capacity came online in 2011 around the world, an increase of 74 percent – yes, 74 percent – to almost 70 GW, according to the day’s other big data dump, the REN21 Renewables 2012 Global Status Report [PDF].

There was a caveat there, as well, however: “Although 2011 was a good year for consumers and installers, manufacturers struggled to make profits or even survive amidst excess inventory and falling prices, declining government support, slower market growth for much of the year, and significant industry consolidation. Module manufacturing continued its marked shift to Asia, mainly at the expense of European firms.”

U.S. companies weren’t exactly sailing through the tumultuous times, either, leading  foes of government support to say the sector is a failure and unworthy of support while advocates argue for increased backing. But Blomberg New Energy Finance head Michael Liebreich urged policymakers to take a more nuanced view.

“We are entering a fascinating period, with clean energy’s costs starting to be competitive with fossil fuels,” Liebreich said. “The challenge for policymakers is to reduce support mechanisms at just the right pace — too fast and the long-term future of the industry will be harmed. Too slow and you do the world’s taxpayers and energy consumers a great disservice.”

Liebreich compared the wrenching realignment of the solar industry to the U.S. car industry in the early 20th century.

solar power investment

image via Shutterstock

“In 1903, the United States had over 500 car companies, most of which quickly fell by the wayside even as the automobile sector grew into an industrial juggernaut,” he said. “A century ago, writing off the auto industry based on the failures of weaker firms would have been foolish. Today, the renewable energy sector is experiencing similar growing pains as the sector consolidates.”

Growing pains, but still growing. In fact, Bloomberg New Energy Finance boosted its separate assessment of clean energy investment in 2011 from an earlier estimate of $263 billion to $280 billion. This figure is larger than the UN report’s $257 billion number because it also includes “outlays on energy-smart technologies such as smart grid, advanced transportation and efficiency and those on low-carbon services and support,” the analysts said.