Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–December 27, 2016
Source: Solar City
As of last month, there were some 1.1 million residential rooftop solar power systems keeping the televisions, refrigerators, computers, stoves, and lights on throughout the United States. In California, the solar leader, about 600,000 homes have installed such systems. And here, as well as elsewhere in the nation, the speed with which new systems are being put into operation is remarkable. Although utility-scale solar systems—solar farms—generate the larger portion of electricity we get from the sun, about 30 percent now comes from these rooftop systems.
Source: Physics of Solar Energy
A solar thermal system for heating water on a Miami roof in the 1930s.
Last quarter alone, the industry installed 4.1 gigawatts of solar electricity systems, the best quarter ever. Of that about 2 gigawatts were rooftop systems, what is called “distributed solar.” By the end of this year, the nation will have about 43 gigawatts of solar capacity installed, about 4 percent of total U.S. electricity-generating capacity from all sources. A gigawatt of solar capacity can power between 164,000 and 180,000 homes and reduce carbon emissions by 41.7 million metric tons annually.
For all of 2016, 26 gigawatts from various sources were added to the nation’s electrical capacity. None of it was coal, and solar was the leading source. Together with wind, a smidgen of hydro, and the first nuclear plant coming on line in a very long time, two-thirds of those gigawatts were without carbon emissions.
In the 19th Century, heating water was a laborious and dirty business, mostly accomplished by burning wood or coal on a cook stove and hauling it to wherever it was needed. That’s exactly how it was done in the house where I was born and lived my first eight years. Carried in buckets from a pump in the yard and heated on a cast-iron stove. Affluent city dwellers at the time heated their water with gas made from coal. But with the patenting of a practical solar water heater in 1891 and subsequent improvements, many people in sunny regions chose that more efficient and much cleaner method.
Source: Sears Catalog
By the turn of the century a third of the homes in Pasadena, California, had solar thermal panels heating their water, half the homes by 1930. Between 1920 and 1941, Miami installed as many as 60,000 solar water heaters and there were a few thousand in other parts of the state. In California, however, cheap natural gas put the the companies that made the solar heaters out of business by the mid-1930s. In Florida, the price of copper used in piping the solar heaters soared during World War II and rationing made obtaining the metal at any price hard to find. After the war, electric heaters, sold below cost by the state’s power and light utilities to encourage people to use more electricity, soon took over the Florida market.
By the 1970s, few of the remaining rooftop solar thermal panels were more than relics, long out of use.
But the Arab oil embargoes of those years spurred the U.S. government to look for alternatives, including solar. A key energy initiative of the Jimmy Carter administration in 1977 was the Solar Energy Research Institute, which is now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, based in Golden, Colorado. (Full Disclosure: I worked there for three years until President Reagan gutted SERI’s budget in 1981.)
While staffers at SERI dreamed of a day when every home and factory roof in America was covered with a different type of solar panel—the electricity-producing kind—the photovoltaic cells needed to generate sun power in those days were a hundred times more expensive than they are today. Part of SERI’s charge was to research methods of reducing those costs.
At the same time, through its regional SUN Power centers, the institute encouraged Americans to put efficient solar thermal water heaters on their roofs. It was a good plan except that too many fly-by-night operators installed crap systems, tainting the reputation of the whole industry. Even though there were perfectly good systems to be had, by 2007, fewer than 1,000 solar water heaters were being installed in California each year.
Solar cells were still five times more expensive than they are now, so it was easy to find plenty of naysayers claiming solar would never produce significant amounts of electricity.
But solar PV installations took off that year. In the decade since then their cost in the United States has plunged more than 70 percent. Every year more solar is being installed than the last. Since 2010, installations—on residential and commercial rooftops as well as solar farms—have grown 15-fold.
So much has the price fallen that, in ever more U.S. markets, electricity generated from rooftop solar PV systems now beats the price paid buying it from the grid. Including federal and states incentives (where the latter exist) the average savings on electricity from installing a solar PV system is now $20,000 over 20 years. Internationally, too, solar now beats all fossil fuels, including natural gas, as the cheapest new source of electricity.
By the end of this year, U.S. solar power capacity, both utility scale and rooftop installations, is expected to reach 44 gigawatts, enough to provide electricity for about 8 million average homes.
At last count, the U.S. solar industry employs 209,000 people nationwide. That’s more than the number of workers in the oil and gas extraction business and three times the number employed in coal mining today. And there is no end in sight for that growth. A new solar installation is activated every 1.6 minutes in the U.S. today.
In 2015, solar, together with wind power—which is also falling in price, is being installed at an accelerating pace, and employs 88,000 workers—generated 5 percent of the nation’s electricity. Together, in 2005 there were 10 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity on line in the U.S. This year, the total is more than 110 gigawatts. That speed of growth would have been fantastic 30 years ago. Today, given what we know about climate change, it’s not fast enough.
Spurred by government policies, the pace could be greatly accelerated. In fact, it has to be more than “could be.” The current trend would give us 15 percent of our electricity from solar and wind by 2030. However, to fulfill the U.S. pledge made in the Paris climate pact, Energy Innovation’s Policy Simulator recommends policies that would put the nation at 33 percent by 2030. Meanwhile, California, by far the current state leader in solar, has set a goal of 50 percent renewables by 2030—including solar, wind, water and geothermal. It has also set a goal for energy storage, which is essential given the intermittent nature of solar and wind.
Installed wind capacity is expected to be about 83 gigawatts by the end of 2016. In 2006, the total was 11.5 gigawatts.
But, the Solutions Project, co-founded by Mark Ruffalo and Marco Krapels, has an even greater goal—100 percent renewables by 2050.
And while it no doubt produces eyerolls in the naysayers’ crowd (even though investors are leaning more and more toward solar and wind), two U.S. senators—Democrats Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley of Oregon—introduced a Senate resolution in early December calling for exactly that, powering the U.S. with 100 percent renewables within 33 years:
“As a technological giant, the United States must continue to lead the clean energy revolution. The question is no longer if we can power our country with 100 percent renewable energy, it’s when and how we will make the transition. Moving to 100 percent clean energy will power job creation that is good for all creation. We can and will meet this goal and now, more than ever, it is critical that we stand up and fight for our clean energy future. I thank Senator Merkley for his partnership introducing this resolution that sets out the bold goal of generating 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2050.”
Their resolution, of course, has zero chance of being passed in the next two to four years given the heavy load of senators who deny the knowledge climate science has provided us while ignoring the huge number of jobs a renewables-only economy would produce. As for the incoming Trump administration, it is brimful of climate science deniers, too.
Those obstacles should not make progressives surrender in what is an existential fight. If we are to ameliorate the impacts of climate change, and create millions of new jobs, we have to change numerous policies, including those related to energy.
Unable to do so at the federal level until the climate numbskulls are outnumbered in Congress and tossed out of the executive branch, we should in the meantime focus on changing as many state policies as we can.
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