Thor’s hammer and the fight against fossil fuels

March 19, 2021

As energy consumers, we’re on the front lines of an important battle. Until recently, we didn’t have much say in where we got the electricity we need to power our lives, or how much we paid for this privilege. Our energy choices were dictated to us from the outside, and we either had to be willing participants in the system or…live off the grid.

But with new energy technologies, we’re gaining the upper hand—and we have a formidable weapon on our side. As distributed solar power gets better and cheaper, we’ve been handed a metaphorical hammer of Thor: we’re literally pulling energy from the sky and into our homes, creating electricity out of seemingly nothing—and in doing so we’re hastening the end of a world powered by fossil fuels.

What’s happening when you tap into the power of solar—more or less.

Vanquishing our past

Compared to distributed solar—generated locally from our own rooftops and from community solar farms—the way we’ve powered our lives for the past 100 years or so seems altogether antiquated. The majority of our electricity today (63 percent) comes from fossil fuels (mainly coal and natural gas), burned in the thousands of large power plants across the country. The electricity then travels along a vast network of high-voltage transmission and distribution lines, and on average 5 percent of it is lost before it even reaches our homes.

Dispatchers engage in a complex logistical shuffle as they deliver electricity from a dizzying array of sources. With so many variables to account for, the price we pay for our daily power fluctuates widely depending on factors like fuel costs, power plant operations, the transmission and distribution system, weather conditions, and overall energy regulations.

With distributed solar, the picture is profoundly different. Because distributed solar is local energy, the electricity never has to travel far from its source, eliminating a lot of the complexity in generation, transmission, and distribution. With rooftop solar, the electricity generated from your panels might travel a few hundred feet to your outlets and switches. In the case of a community solar farm that powers a large apartment or a whole neighborhood, the pathway might be slightly longer, but still nothing like the extensive grid networks we’re used to seeing.


The New…Valhalla?

Why else is distributed solar a hands-down superior power technology compared to our conventional fossil fuel-based power system? Consider the following:

  • Consumer independence: Because the sun’s energy is essentially “free,” by investing in distributed solar anyone can become their own power plant. By not being completely beholden to an outside power authority, you get the satisfaction of knowing that you’re increasing your control of your own energy destiny.
  • Annual energy costs: Residential solar is the gift that keeps on giving. Once you’ve invested the initial upfront cost, you’re essentially locking in your energy costs at a low constant rate. Over a 20-year period, the estimated savings from solar can range from $10,000 to almost $30,000, depending where you live (check out electricity rates by state here).
  • Pollution: Solar brings big savings for our air, water, and health. The average 6 kilowatt residential solar system in the U.S. reduces about 6.3 metric tons of carbon emissions annually, roughly equivalent to taking one fossil fuel automobile off the road each year.
  • Energy storage: Although most distributed solar systems today are still connected to the grid, new battery storage systems make it possible for households with solar panels to store their excess power for use at times when the sun doesn’t shine, reducing and even eliminating reliance on the grid.
  • Resilience: During a power outage related to a storm or extreme weather event, a solar photovoltaic system with battery storage can be a cost-effective option for keeping the electricity flowing, even compared to running a diesel generator.
  • Energy security: With distributed solar, you aren’t subject to the physical threats to the grid from cyber and terrorist attacks, and you don’t have to rely on energy purchased from potentially unstable locations, such as the Middle East. By “voting solar” with your wallet, you can step out from under the utility monopolies and oil and gas cartels.

None of us are omnipotent, but we can all use our power as consumers to move our energy system from an endless cycle of mining, drilling, refining, and polluting to one that requires zero fuel and results in zero air pollution and emissions. In making the transition to distributed solar, we can seize the power of Thor’s hammer and leave behind an outdated, inferior 20th century energy system.


How my weed eater ushered me into the 21st century

March 17, 2021

This article is from the March 17, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

Gen180’s Matt Turner wrote this post back in late 2018; as spring 2021 arrives (thank goodness), it’s as relevant as ever. A 2021 update at the end checks back in on Matt’s life today, 2.5 years after writing the initial post.

The broken cord just hung there, yellowed with age and not sure of what to do or what to be. This particular cord had held for seven years and had served its purpose well—until this balmy July afternoon.

It used to be the pull cord for a weed trimmer. For years, it would faithfully listen to my grunts and curses as I abused it, struggling to start it up again after a long winter. It would wait patiently as I mixed my two-cycle gas like a chemist in a lab, primed the carburetor with the rubber squeeze bulb, and opened the choke. Then I would aggressively yank that cord like it had slighted me.

Inevitably, after minutes of enduring my frustration, the pull cord would do its job and turn the crankshaft to start the engine. I always had a sense of accomplishment when it started—like I had tamed some fearsome beast.


Tamed by the beast

But on this particular midsummer’s day, the pull cord failed me. After one pull, it snapped. I was left abandoned with a weed trimmer full of gas and ready to work, but with no key to ignite the fires within. I consider myself somewhat handy with tools and basic car repairs, so I was certain that with a little time and research, I could replace a simple pull cord.

As I opened the plastic paneling to reveal the cord housing, I realized that I’d slacked on quite a bit of maintenance over the years. Yes, the pull cord needed replacing, but so did the air filter, the fuel filter, and the spark plug, all of which were original to the machine and, according to the manufacturer, should have been replaced long ago.

After ordering the parts I needed, they arrived at my door within a week. I got to work the next available weekend. Garage open, tools out, music on, I began with the confidence of a seasoned surgeon ready to save a life.

After five hours of blood, sweat, and frustration, I stood back and looked at my handiwork. The concrete floor was permanently stained with fuel, my hands were covered in seven-year-old gunk and blood, and tools were splayed across the floor. I pulled the cord, and nothing happened. Two more times—nothing. Twenty minutes later, still no luck.

Five hours spent repairing a machine that is suppose to make my life easier. Five hours that I could’ve spent watching the game, or fixing that sink leak I’d been meaning to get to, or playing with my daughters. Five hours wasted.

Standing in my garage, I spotted the oil drip under the car that had been slowly leaking for months, and the SUV that had been having transmission issues, and the lawn mower that likely needed the same maintenance as the weed trimmer.

These problems are decades old. It’s 2018. There’s got to be a better way of doing things by now.


Better living with electricity

A good friend of mine who worked in landscaping recommended that I look into getting a new weed trimmer, but this time one that swaps out the internal combustion engine, the carburetor, the pull cord, the spark plug, and the fuel—all for a single battery. It sounded appealing.

After a little research, I found that the battery-powered trimmer cost about as much as the gas-powered one, and the reviews for the battery version were actually better. So I decided to make the jump to my first electric engine.

This isn’t a story to tell you how much I love my new weed trimmer (though I do) because it’s quieter (it is), saves me money (it does), weighs less (yup), and has better performance (that too). It’s the story of how I realized there’s a better way of doing things than we’ve done before.

These problems are decades old. There’s got to be a better way of doing things by now.

I don’t own an electric car yet, but I know that my next car will be one. The cost savings, convenience, performance, and overall experience of electric engines just blows the alternative out of the water. I didn’t start that summer day thinking I’d buy into the “electrify everything” movement. But I came out of it knowing that I’d never look back.

There’s probably some esoteric insight into how my journey from gas-powered small engine frustrations to electric engine happiness is a metaphor for the world’s current state of wrestling with the abundance of gas-powered vehicles and the need for cleaner power. But really, the insight is much simpler: there’s just a better way of doing things now, and it’s electric.

2021 update:

It’s been two and half years since I opened the door to the electrification of everything. That door turned out to be the lid to a pandora’s box of better (and cleaner) ways of doing things. In the spring of 2019 I purchased an electric mower. That same summer I purchased a used electric car and in the fall, we took it one step further and installed solar on our home. With every transition we’ve made there has been a marked improvement in our lives. I can confirm through first-hand experience, there’s definitely no going back.

It feels good that I’m now able to align my actions with what I believe in (cleaner air is better air)—but electrification really is just a better experience. My kids love how quiet and clean our electric car is. Even before getting solar, our EV cut our “fuel” costs in half. When coupled with solar panels, we were able to exchange our $300+ electricity/gasoline combined monthly costs for a $100 per month solar loan—a no brainer decision. I can now see the word-of-mouth effect of my solar panels and EV starting a ripple of positive impact in my family and my neighborhood.

There is still so much work to be done to make these solutions more accessible to more people. While the market is moving things in the right direction (e.g., more used and affordable EVs available for sale, improving technology making solar panels, HVAC, and yard tools cheaper to produce) the science is pretty clear that we need to step on the accelerator in a big way. Find ways that you’re able to get involved (one place to start) and get busy. 

Matt Turner, Creative Manager at Generation180


Clean Transportation for Healthier Neighborhoods

August 5, 2019

Hear from an industry expert to learn how school districts can save money and provide a healthier environment for our communities by switching to electric school buses. U.S. PIRG’s Transportation Campaign Director, Matt Casale, will teach us about: – The state of the technology of electric school buses – The health effects of diesel buses on children – The lifetime cost savings and potential funding options – The relationship between transportation and renewable energy.

Understanding Energy Storage

August 2, 2019

Learn about the power of solar energy storage for your home and school with Corey Ramsden of United Solar Neighbors. The presentation takes a consumer’s perspective on how the technology works, what the economics look like for homeowners, and how large, grid-scale storage is beginning to impact your utility and the power industry as a whole.

Do my actions matter?

July 31, 2019

You’ve seen the headlines, read the stories, and now “climate” has officially been added to the list in your head of important, intimidating issues society needs to solve ASAP.

You’ve also asked yourself the question “what can I do personally?”, which was quickly followed up by “and will it actually make a difference?”

The answer to the first question is fairly straightforward: besides advocating for impactful policies and voting for candidates that support them, there are indeed meaningful actions you can take personally.

Answering the second question—”will it actually make a difference?”—is what this article is all about, because it’s both a valid and a vital question—and because the answer is being debated right now.

One answer to the question

Thoughtful, credible climate voices like journalist David Wallace-Wells and climatologist Michael E. Mann have issued urgent pleas asking those of us who are concerned about climate change to not focus attention on changing our personal behavior. They argue we should instead use our limited energy and resources to tackle the broader, political impediments to the clean energy transition—including obstacles like the deeply entrenched policies that protect the fossil fuel industry.

This line of thinking argues that the only effective solution is large-scale political organizing: to elect decision makers who can leverage their authority to bring about meaningful change more quickly. These thinkers urge that 100 percent of our attention and resources be directed toward the political realm—a focus they say would be far more effective than making individual lifestyle changes like buying outdoor solar lights or cutting back on meat once a week. All these other actions, in their view, are a “toxic distraction.”

In a New York Times opinion piece, Wallace-Wells concluded that “conscious consumption is a cop-out, a neoliberal diversion from collective action, which is what is necessary.” While he conceded that people should “try to live by their own values, about climate as with everything else,” he said the effects of individual lifestyle choices are “ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve.”

One arena (among many) where clean energy action is critical

Writer Bill McKibben, a longtime climate advocate, has offered similar thoughts on what’s needed to really make a difference. Rather than relying on economics and consumer demand to shift the world to a less-risky trajectory, he says, we need to change politics and invest in the growing climate movement.

“Unless the industry’s political power can be broken, the transition away from fossil fuel cannot happen at the pace that physics demands,” McKibben wrote in an April 2019 op-ed. And “unless we goose the pace with government action, the world that we someday power with clean energy would be a dirty world, a broken planet.”

Scaling behavior for greater impact

So, should we should stop advocating for behavior change among individuals and communities? While we absolutely need major policy action on both the federal and state levels to get where we need to go, Generation180’s answer is a respectful but emphatic “no!”. Our view is that individual and community behavior change AND major policy action AND continued technological innovation are all required if we want to get to the livable, clean energy-powered future we want to see.

Individual action—if it’s scaled to the point where it becomes collective action—can have a potentially profound impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, more than you might expect. For example, in a recent report, researchers from Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment looked at Project Drawdown’s list of 80 “ready to deploy” solutions to climate change and found that at least 30 of them depend in large part on individual behavior change.

Behavior change AND major policy reform AND continued technological innovation are all required…

These 30 solutions are for the most part in-hand and ready to go. They cover four main areas—food, agriculture and land management, transportation, and energy and materials—and include measures like composting and reducing food waste, replacing gasoline cars with electric cars and e-bikes, and installing LED lighting and solar panels.

But to reach the last mile of deployment and achieve mass-market adoption, these solutions need our support—as consumers. In other words, they need large-scale behavior change. And while not all of us have the means or capacity to embrace all of these solutions, those of us who can, should. By pushing these solutions into the mainstream, we can help them become more publicly and politically acceptable.

Not convinced yet? An  analysis, also from Rare, models the potential impact of six key behaviors that, if each reached a 10% adoption level among Americans, could get our county over three-quarters of the way to the greenhouse gas emissions target we set in the Paris Agreement.

Those six behaviors are:

  1. Eating a plant-rich diet
  2. Reducing food waste
  3. Purchasing an electric car
  4. Purchasing green energy (like rooftop solar)
  5. Reducing air travel (one fewer flight per year)
  6. Using carbon offsets (to offset our remaining, unavoidable emissions).

Over three-quarters of the way to meeting our Paris Agreement goal. That’s meaningful impact.

Six actions (carbon-sequestering soil aside) that could get us 3/4 of the way to our Paris goal. Source: Center for Behavior and the Environment at Rare

Behavior change leads to policy change

Perhaps more importantly, individual behavior change, at a large enough scale, can help create the environment in which impactful policy change is an actual possibility. Kevin Green, senior director at Center for Behavior and the Environment, recently put it well: “It doesn’t take an act of Congress to get to behavior change—but it might take behavior change to get to an act of Congress.” A New York Times article put it another way while recounting an interview with Alice Larkin of the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research: “while governments do need to take tough action, they derive their courage to do so from the conduct of citizens.”

With enough concerted effort, we can work to create a movement that changes behavior—and that helps to spread social norms. These new “energy aware” norms, as they become increasingly mainstream, can in turn develop attitudes that support the crucial policy changes we need.

High school students in Michigan recently led a campaign to power their school with solar.

Where to focus our efforts

The list of potential actions we can take as individuals is long—and they’re not all created equal. Our strategy at Generation180 is to focus on behaviors and products that can both make a real dent in carbon emissions and, crucially, have a transformative, “gateway” effect on the people and communities that adopt them—an effect that can ultimately be additive to the building of political will.

What transformative, “gateway” effect are we talking about? Research shows that interventions that prompt people to take “pro-environmental behaviors” that are significant and highly visible investments can develop and strengthen a sense of social identity and have a persistent “pro-environmental” effect on a person’s subsequent behavior.

It doesn’t take an act of Congress to get to behavior change—but it might take behavior change to get to an act of Congress.

Rooftop solar and electric cars fit these criteria well (for example, survey data show that driving an electric car makes people conserve energy in their homes more). Changing how people view themselves and the world around them is powerful stuff—it’s one of the most effective leverage points you can use to make change happen within a complex system like our society.

Supporting specific behavioral actions that have been identified as being not only impactful, but perspective- and identity-shifting, will be key to securing a cleaner, safer, healthier world. Products and behaviors that can be scaled quickly—like installing rooftop solar, driving an electric car, and switching to plant-rich diets—can directly move the needle on carbon emissions and stimulate mainstream market adoption.

To reiterate: we absolutely need major policy action on both the federal and state levels to get where we need to go. But when you’re not at the ballot box or organizing politically, there are meaningful, impactful actions that you can take in your home and in your community—like driving an electric car or advocating for solar on your local school. Again—it’s hard to imagine amassing the political will we need without leveraging these tangible, transformative products and behaviors that provide an important gateway to bigger changes.

So, to answer the big question: yes, your actions do matter. Let’s step up and do this—in your home, your community, and at the ballot box.


How to lead the charge to help your schools go solar

April 19, 2019

Last month, hundreds of thousands of students around the globe walked out of school to speak up for their future and participate in Youth Strike 4 Climate. The actions of young people like Greta Thunberg and her peers around the world continue to spotlight our need for immediate action. This leadership from schoolchildren begs a follow-up question: can our schools—the institutions that shape and prepare our kids—help bring about a clean energy future as well?

Turns out the answer is an emphatic “yes”. In Generation 180’s hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, students and parents are advocating for their school districts to advance the adoption of clean energy and energy efficiency. Generation 180 supported community members in a local campaign to advocate for a commitment from two school districts to take stronger climate action. These community members coordinated meetings with school district and municipal staff, drafted school board resolutions, collected petition signatures, and garnered community support. Students from first grade through high school came to school board meetings to share their reasons for wanting clean energy and climate action at their schools. As a result of their efforts, Albemarle County Public Schools passed a resolution last fall that committed to expand efforts to secure renewable energy systems and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. Last week, Charlottesville City Schools passed a resolution committing to increased energy performance, clean energy, and water conservation.


Where you come in

You may not have realized it yet, but you have the power to help your schools make the switch to clean energy. And you don’t need to be an energy expert: students, parents, teachers, and community members can all lead the charge. All you need is passion, dedication to make a difference in your community, and our newly published Solar Schools Campaign Toolkit.

The Solar Schools Campaign Toolkit is a step-by-step guide to running an effective solar campaign at your local schools. It includes a complete campaign roadmap, tips, template documents, case studies, and more. Co-written with our partner Climate Parents, it’s got everything necessary to empower you to be a champion for solar at your schools.

As schools across the country look to enhance learning, optimize financial resources, and protect the health of our children, it’s clear that solar energy is a solution that can help lead the way to a cleaner and brighter future. Switching to solar energy benefits schools, families, and communities.

Why schools?

Nationwide, schools are spending $8 billion a year on energy costs, their second-largest expense after personnel. There’s now a tremendous opportunity for schools to save money and to reinvest in students by switching to clean energy. The energy used by K-12 schools in the U.S. is responsible for as much carbon dioxide emissions as 18 coal-fired power plants, and we know that children are especially vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution. By transitioning to solar, schools can do their part to reduce harmful pollution and protect the health and well-being of their students.

Why now?

The cost of solar panels is one-third of what it was just 10 years ago, and solar power is now the fastest growing source of new energy globally. Driven largely by the drastically falling costs for solar power, the number of U.S. schools that have invested in solar has grown by approximately 50 percent  since 2014.


What’s the opportunity?

The cumulative installed solar capacity at U.S. K-12 schools has grown more than a hundredfold during the past decade. Today, more than 5,500 schools nationwide are harnessing the power of the sun (check out our map to find schools near you). Yet despite this tremendous growth, only 5% of schools are taking advantage of the benefits of solar energy.

If every school in the country installed an average-sized school solar system, they would generate enough clean energy (37.8 gigawatts) to power 6.2 million homes. There is incredible potential to transform how we power our schools.

What does a solar schools campaign look like?

While every campaign is unique, we’ve created a roadmap to help you follow the four general phases that most campaigns take:

Roadmap for a solar schools campaign

A successful solar schools campaign generally takes around 18 months from start to finish (from assembling your team to installation of a solar system), though this can vary greatly depending on all sorts of factors. We’ve written up case studies that showcase the variety of stakeholders, paths, and timelines that can lead to a successful end result: check out how a seventh grader led a successful campaign in Montana, how a science teacher in Michigan guided his students in their campaign to power their science department with solar, and how other exemplary districts across the country are making bold moves toward clean energy.

Powering schools with clean energy can have a positive ripple effect across the community: the visibility of solar on schools demonstrates the viability and affordability of clean energy solutions to local homeowners and businesses. Schools can be the catalysts for change to help drive us toward a cleaner, healthier future. What most school communities need to set them on the path to solar, however, is a spark. That’s where you come in.

Check out the Campaign Toolkit


Solar-powered science in Michigan

April 3, 2019

Part 3 of a series of 3 case studies on successful solar school campaigns.
Be sure to check out part 1 and part 2 as well.

The science department at a southeast Michigan high school is now fully powered by solar energy, thanks to the dedication of a teacher and his students. West Bloomfield High School first received a grant for a 3.4 kilowatt (kW) solar array in 2011. This small solar system generated enough energy to power the science classroom of Joshua Barclay, but his students in the E.A.R.T.H. (Environmentally Aware, Ready To Help) Club wanted to do more.  They wanted to leave a lasting legacy by providing the school with free energy for the future.

Over the next few years, Barclay’s students researched what it would take to power the school’s entire science department with clean energy. To estimate the total energy demand, his honors physics class conducted a full energy audit of the department in 2017. They measured the energy draw of every device across all science classrooms, interviewed teachers to find out when the devices were on, and then used the data to estimate the department’s total annual energy use.

The students realized that energy efficiency is a critical  step to enabling renewable power. They calculated that simply upgrading all of the department’s lighting to LEDs would reduce the energy use by half and make it feasible to power all the entire science department with the addition of a 20 kW solar system.

Student-driven solar campaign

Barclay and his students in the E.A.R.T.H. club embarked on the solar campaign that they dubbed 20kW by 2020. After two years of dedication and hard work, the students raised nearly $25,000 for the project. They conducted bagel and pizza sales, collected donations for an LED bulb fundraiser, hosted a crowdfunding campaign, and applied for several grants.

The E.A.R.T.H. club  also conducted a solar energy resource analysis to determine the best location on campus for the solar system and to calculate the cost savings and reductions in carbon emissions provided by the 20 kW solar system. They made several presentations to the school board to explain the benefits of the school going solar. Once the financing was in place, the school board gave them the approval to go ahead.

Screen Shot 2019-03-26 at 11.00.58 PM-1

The students successfully fundraised for the upfront investment of $21,000. With that down payment, the school could lease a 20 kW solar system for 5.5 years and purchase the electricity produced from that system at 10% lower cost than its current wholesale rate.  After the lease period, the school would own the system outright and benefit from the free energy of the sun for the life of the solar panels. The school is expected to save $65,000 in electricity costs over 25 years.  “My students wanted to do this for the school district—to give them free energy for the future,” said Barclay.

Hands-on science learning

“From conception to installation to operation, our solar energy system has been a fantastic tool to teach real-world science,” says Barclay. West Bloomfield High School students have been actively involved in every step of the process to power the science department with clean energy. Over the course of a few years, students calculated the science department’s energy needs, raised the money for the solar panels, secured school district approval, and even installed the ground-based solar photovoltaic system.

Barclay will use the solar system as a tool for real-world learning and work with the E.A.R.T.H. club to learn how maintain the system for peak performance. When the school was given different advice from different solar installers on the best angle to set the solar arrays, this science teacher saw an opportunity for his students to research this real-world question.Beginning in 2019, Barclay’s students are going to experiment with different angles for the solar panel placement to assess which angle generates the most energy over various time scales. They will test different hypotheses to determine the optimal set up for the arrays, and they can share their results with local solar companies.

Screen Shot 2019-03-26 at 11.03.16 PM-1

Benefits beyond the science classroom

The students involved in this solar project gained life skills that they will take with them into adulthood. The students applied economics when they had to create a financial goal for the 20 kW solar system, raise the money for their goal, and continue to research new ways to finance the solar system. By advocating for solar to the school board, they were practicing civics and learning the power of expressing their views to their local elected leaders. Throughout the process, the students were mastering their collaboration, communication and problem-solving skills.

The new solar panels the students installed will also benefit the community by keeping 30 tons of carbon dioxide pollution out of the atmosphere each year.  The solar panels will be a reminder to the school community of the role we can all play in creating a clean energy future together. “Our solar system is not only accessible to our kids for learning, but it is also in a visible place on our school grounds where the public can see what we are doing and learn that solar is available for all,” said Barclay.

Ready to learn more about how to run a successful solar schools campaign in your community? Check out our Solar Schools Campaign Toolkit.


The basics of rooftop solar

March 12, 2019

When it comes to solar panels on homes, a lot of us might categorize ourselves as “curious but clueless”. We know the basic idea—that solar can create electricity for your home and reduce your utility bill—but beyond that? The whole matter quickly starts feeling a bit mysterious, a bit like uncharted territory.

Here are two reasons not to worry: first, more than 1.5 million other households have “gone solar” before you and figured it out; second, this blog post is here to give you an overview of the basics. So here we go.

What are the upfront considerations?

Before diving into the details about rooftop solar, there are a handful of considerations to think about right off the bat. The first few involve the characteristics of your home.

For starters, it’s a good idea to examine how efficient your home’s energy use is currently so that you end up with an appropriately-sized solar system. If there are some smart improvements you can make to improve your home’s energy efficiency (here is a handy checklist), it makes sense to do them sooner rather than later.

To know for sure whether your home is a good candidate for solar panels, a local solar company can provide an evaluation (usually for free). They’ll look at things like the age of your roof, its angle of incline, and the direct sun or shading it gets. A younger roof that’s southern facing with little to no shade from trees or structures is ideal.

A rooftop solar system will be able to generate more electricity (and thus more savings) under this scenario. But according to Google’s Project Sunroof, four out of five U.S. homes have solar power potential, meaning that they have enough unshaded area for solar panels. Even before contacting an installer, you can use Google’s estimator to help map your roof’s solar savings potential.

It’s also worth confirming whether you live in a state that has “net metering” laws. Net metering allows residential and commercial customers who generate their own electricity from solar power to feed electricity they don’t use back into the grid, and to receive payment (in the form of credit) for it. Fortunately, net metering laws exist in 41 states and in the District of Columbia, so odds are good that you’re in one of those areas.

What does a rooftop solar system cost?

In 2019, an average size solar system costs $12,810 after tax credits. There are three different ways to go about purchasing a rooftop solar system today: cash purchase, loan/financing, and power purchase agreements. While a cash purchase is pretty self-explanatory, the other two routes could use some brief explanation:

  • Solar loan: Just like other types of personal loans, a solar loan lets you finance your purchase while paying for the system over time. Most solar loans have little-to-no upfront costs, making solar an affordable investment on almost any budget. While there are several different options for these loans, most solar companies will help find the one that works best for you. In general, these companies work with third-party providers as well as government programs that specifically grant solar panel loans. The bottom line, though, is that many homeowners can effectively swap out their current electric bill with a solar loan payment that’s lower than their electric bill—all while switching your home to sunshine power.
  • Power purchase agreement (PPA) and solar leasing: PPAs are another popular option that require no upfront cost. Under a PPA, you don’t pay for the panels at all—the utility owns and maintains the system on your roof; you simply commit to purchasing the solar energy that’s produced. While you don’t own the panels and therefore can’t benefit from net metering, you can still power your home with sunshine and reduce your electricity costs via a lower rate. A solar lease is nearly identical to a PPA except that you’re technically paying to rent the equipment itself, not paying for the energy that it generates. Over half of states permit PPAs and/or solar leases, so there’s a good chance that zero-percent-down solar is available where you live.

How much will you save?

While everyone generally knows that solar panels will reduce your electricity bill, the numbers can quickly start to feel a little complicated. A common way to gauge how much solar will save you is to determine the “payback period,” which answers the question: How long will it take to make my money back?

The answer, on average, is seven years, but that’s not necessarily the best way to look at things. “In many ways, your solar power system is a financial product—one that is capable of generating annual returns ranging anywhere from 10 percent to more than 30 percent,” notes Energysage. Your solar system begins generating a return (in the form of reduced or nonexistent electricity bills) immediately, and can generate between $10,000 and $30,000 over the system’s lifespan of 25 years or more.

Can rooftop solar increase your home’s value?

While it’s great that solar panels last for 25-plus years, most of us aren’t staying in the same home for that long. So, what happens if you’re not around to reap the ongoing savings? Will your investment be reflected in your home’s value? Thankfully, this has been studied: on average, solar panels increase a home’s value by $14,329. That, combined with the guaranteed, ongoing monthly electric bill savings, is a one-two punch that a bathroom remodel can’t replicate.

There’s plenty more to learn about rooftop solar, but with these basics in your back pocket, you’re now ready to impress a neighbor, a coworker, or maybe even a solar installer. You’re also ready to check out Generation180’s Energy Challenge: there’s a “Home” challenge category that can help you take the next step in investigating actions like going solar.

Most importantly, you’re one step closer to generating renewable, local energy and taking part in our transition to a clean energy future.


Ten tips to help you conquer the Energy Challenge

March 6, 2019

More than ever before, individuals like us can help drive forward our transition to clean energy. We have the power to stand up, speak up, and make smart choices—in how we power our homes, cars, schools, cities—and so much more. We’ve just launched our Energy Challenge to make it simpler and easier to take everyday action in your own life.

Here are ten strategies to help you get started with the Energy Challenge, maximize the power of this tool, and take action on clean energy.

1. Set a challenge period that’s right for you

The duration of your challenge matters. Spend some time thinking about the length of your ideal challenge before you get going. With a shorter challenge period (~1 month), you can aim for rapid change by making a strong push in a relatively small amount of time. Alternatively, longer challenge periods (~3 months) allow you to go at a slower pace and can be helpful in taking on deeper lifestyle changes and planning for some of the actions that take more time and attention, like rooftop solar. Assess your goals for the Energy Challenge and choose a challenge period that helps you achieve them.

2. Form a team

We’re all in this together! Inspire and empower your inner circle to take part in the clean energy transition, and help them realize their carbon and financial savings in the process. Collectively, individuals account for approximately one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions through their personal vehicles and home energy use, so the collective savings of your team could be huge. Besides, energy action is more fun with friends, family, and colleagues, so create your own team or join an existing team today!

3. Challenge other teams (and your own)

There’s no better motivator than a little healthy competition. In the Energy Challenge, you earn points for all the actions you take, and you can compete with other teams and within your own team to see who can earn the most! Use the built-in feature that allows teams to challenge other teams head-to-head; check out the overall leaderboard to see how your team stacks up to others in the platform; or track your progress internally through your personal team leaderboard.

4. Choose the right actions

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After registering, choose the actions you want to take

Take some time to browse through the list of actions. The actions span different levels of difficulty, and there are options in nearly every aspect of your daily life, whether it’s home energy use, transportation, or even food choices. Start with the ones that best fit your current lifestyle. Then, think outside the box. Challenge yourself to take action in ways you would have never thought possible. Be the spark—disrupt the norm around how we think about and use energy in our everyday lives, and then inspire others to do the same.

5. Set a few reminders

Shifting the status quo can take some work. Set some reminders on your phone, calendar, agenda, etc. to remind you of the everyday actions you’re going to take. The platform will even send you a few automated reminders and tips to help you along. People say that it takes three weeks for an action to become a habit, so until that point, it can’t hurt to set a few reminders to prompt you toward clean energy action.

6. Take it step-by-step

Some of these actions require a big commitment, and can’t all be done at once. Set clear, reasonable, actionable, and time-constrained goals to pave the way toward completing the highest-impact actions (and consequently, racking up a ton of points for the Challenge). For example, there are a few different actions you can take toward getting solar or an electric vehicle, and each of them will earn you points. Careful and thoughtful planning is sure to result in a successful and impactful challenge, so get started and plan it out today.

7. Find something you’re passionate about—and share it!

Empowerment is contagious, so make sure to share the progress you’re making in the Energy Challenge. The platform allows you to post to a discussion feed to show other participants how you’re taking action and to inspire them to take their own, or you can even ask for help in solving a problem you encounter on your own. Sharing a real experience or obstacle can catalyze widespread action and give you the support you need to keep making progress in the Energy Challenge.

8. Celebrate your savings

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See the cumulative impact you, your team, and the entire community have had

For some of the actions, the Energy Challenge provides calculations of the average financial and greenhouse gas savings attributed to those actions to help participants visualize how much of an impact they’re making. Each individual situation is unique. Take a look at how much you’re saving on your grocery bill by adopting a plant-rich diet, or see how much carbon-free clean electricity rooftop solar panels could produce.

9. Make it YOUR challenge

Gain points by customizing your profile, interacting with others, and making the challenge a part of your life. Fully embracing the challenge’s customization capabilities and choosing actions that speak to you will enable you to get the most out of the Challenge. Dive into the settings page and distinguish yourself (and your impact) from others’ to make your efforts known.

10. Spread the word

We all need to rise to the challenge in order to make the collective impact we need. That’s why we’re working closely with organizations and groups to bring them on board the Energy Challenge en masse. So, if you are part of a larger company, volunteer group, or any other community that wants to expand its social impact, we can help. The Energy Challenge provides a simple, measurable, and fun way for large groups to take action toward a clean energy future together, building a collaborative and sustainable culture among participants. Please reach out to us to learn more.

You’re now fully-equipped to tackle The Energy Challenge. See you on the platform!


Head of the class: School districts lead the charge towards 100% clean energy

February 16, 2019

Part 2 of a series of 3 case studies on successful solar school campaigns.
See part 1 here and part 3 here.

With the price of solar installations dropping dramatically in recent years, schools have increasingly taken advantage of the opportunity to cut energy costs by switching to solar. The amount of solar power generated at U.S. schools has grown by 86% since 2014, and a growing number of school districts from coast to coast are leading the charge towards 100% clean energy. The snapshots below illustrate three different models for school districts to achieve energy independence and pull the plug on electric bills. 

Carbon Neutral School District

One of the largest school districts in California has identified itself as an energy leader by setting a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2040. In September of 2017, the San Francisco Unified School District, representing 136 schools and 55,600 students, passed a Carbon Neutral Schools Resolution.  This groundbreaking decision called for the District to phase out fossil fuel use by 2040 and generate all of its own power onsite by 2050. The district’s plan to achieve this ambitious goal includes a commitment to install solar photovoltaic systems and to design all new buildings to be Zero Net Energy (ZNE). San Francisco’s school district is on track to demonstrate that it’s possible for all districts to achieve carbon neutrality at little-to-no additional cost. In the 10 years since it launched this initiative, SFUSD has saved over $16 million in energy costs.

100% Solar School Districts

Red Wing Public Schools in Minnesota generates up to 120% of its district-wide energy consumption through a 6-megawatt community solar garden (one of the largest in the country) on school district property. The energy produced by the 20,000 solar panels is shared by the district’s six schools and the community. Over the next 25 years the school district is projected to save about $7.7 million in energy costs, including $1 million from lease revenue. IPS Solar provided teacher trainings and lesson plans to ensure the district’s 2,800 students benefit from the STEM learning opportunities that the solar project offers. This community solar garden model has enabled other school districts in Minnesota, including Annandale, Chisago, St. Cloud and Columbia Heights School Districts, to supply at least 100% of its energy needs from solar.

Certified Zero Energy School Building

When the new building at Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, VA, opened in 2015, it became the largest building in the country to be certified as Zero Energy. The building was designed to be 66% more energy efficient than the district average by incorporating optimal solar orientation and shading, LED lighting, low-energy landscaping water systems, and more. Solar thermal water heating and geothermal pumps were installed for heating and cooling. Nearly 500kW of rooftop solar photovoltaic panels are generating onsite clean energy. With the students and staff helping to operate the building efficiently, the school has consistently produced more onsite clean energy than it consumes. Arlington Public Schools is now working on designing its second zero energy school and expanding solar installations throughout the district.

You can be the spark that brings the benefits of clean energy to your school district! Check out our Solar Schools campaign to learn more about helping your schools go solar. Connect with our campaign partner, Sierra Club’s Climate Parents program, to help your school district move forward with a 100% clean energy commitment.


Seventh grader switches her school to solar

December 21, 2018

Part 1 of a series of 3 case studies on successful solar school campaigns.
See part 2 here and part 3 here.

Montana seventh grader Claire Vlases propelled her independent study project into a transformation of her school to solar power.

During the two-year campaign, she collaborated with her principal and fellow students and convinced the school board to approve and help finance the project. Together, they raised enough money to fund solar installations on her school as well as on two local elementary schools. 

Thanks to Claire, Sacajawea Middle School in Bozeman, Montana, now has a solar energy system that generates a quarter of the school’s electricity and saves about $8,000 every year.

The impact of the new solar installation extends well beyond today. “Schools last a long time, and so do solar panels,” said Claire. “And every student, parent, even grandparent that steps into the school has been impacted by the solar panel work by the students before them. Hopefully they will see this and be inspired to create change in their own community.”

From independent study to the school board

Claire started exploring solar energy for her independent study class as a way to improve her school, her community, and the environment. “I spend most of my time in school, and the rest of it outdoors, and it was important for me to connect the two,” she said.

She looked into solar panels as her school was undergoing a large-scale renovation and became convinced that a solar system should be part of the process. She pitched the idea to her school’s principal, Gordon Grissom, who agreed to consider the proposal but was also honest about potential challenges, such as regulations, stakeholder approval, and funding. Claire soon learned that the biggest challenge was the lack of dedicated funding for a solar installation, and that the district had not planned to install a system in the near future.

The school now powers a quarter of its electricity needs from the sun and saves roughly $8,000 every year.

She wasn’t deterred. She brought the idea to the weekly meeting of the school board. While she was nervous about her first time pitching to a large audience, she was well prepared with facts and figures demonstrating the benefits of solar.

Just before Claire spoke, the architects gave an update on the school renovation, which they said would bring the school into the 21st century. Claire then noted in her presentation that a real 21st-century school should be powered by clean energy. School board trustee Douglas Fischer said her idea was met with interest and support, and after a feasibility study was conducted at the school, the district pledged to cover a fifth of the estimated price tag.


“Solar Makes Sense at SMS”

Claire was determined to raise the remaining funds. She dubbed her campaign “Solar Makes Sense at SMS” and created a website to share information and attract funds. “Solar benefits everyone, so I tried to make the campaign something everyone could participate in,” she explained.

At school, Claire and other students raised $11,000 toward the solar panels, including by organizing a talent show and a “Pennies for Power” homeroom competition. She also wrote grants and met with potential donors. Her sixth-grade sister raised $3,000 by applying for a grant from the Bozeman Area Community Foundation’s Youth Giving project. In total, after receiving an $80,000 grant from the Kendeda Fund, the campaign raised $125,000 for the solar project.

Lasting Impact

Thanks to Claire’s determination and leadership, the largest solar energy system allowed in the state of Montana was installed at Sacajawea Middle School in the summer of 2018. The school now powers a quarter of its electricity needs from the sun and saves roughly $8,000 every year.

Solar energy “will help schools control costs from rising fuel expenses and make cleaner air and a healthier environment for kids,” said Douglas Fischer. “It will also provide great lessons for kids about engineering and energy.”

“Education was a part of our intention all along,” Principal Grissom told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. The school intends to include lessons and programs about alternative energy sources in its science classes, and will display a live feed in the entryway that logs the power generated and the money saved by the solar panels.

“My favorite part about this project was that one person like me could start something small and then the project could grow and have a big impact on the community.” 

During the two-year campaign, the cost for the 50-kilowatt solar energy system dropped to nearly half of the initial 2016 estimate. Two more Bozeman schools are now following suit, using leftover funds from Claire’s campaign to cover a large chunk of the cost of installing solar. As a result of the student-led solar campaign, the conversation about energy and sustainability in Bozeman Public Schools has completely shifted, and the potential for solar and other renewables is now heavily considered in the design and renovation of school facilities.

Claire credits her success to teamwork and to being open to learning new approaches. “It’s a lot easier for a community to work [together] to make a positive change, rather than just an individual alone,” she said. “There are always going to be barriers and hard parts. When there’s a challenge presented to you, use it as a learning moment and an opportunity to overcome it.”

Claire’s advice to others pursuing solar on their schools? “Never give up. Even if it seems like a lot of hard work, it will pay off.”

Ready to learn more about how to run a successful solar schools campaign in your community? Check out our Solar Schools Campaign Toolkit.


This holiday, put an electric vehicle on your wish list

December 18, 2018

It’s hard to believe they’re still running those ads—you know, the ones where the spouse surprises her partner with a shiny new SUV, festooned with an oversized red bow? We’re pretty sure that’s never happened in real life—but, if your family happens to be in the market for a new vehicle this year, the holidays can be a really good time to buy. And this year, more than ever, you’d do well to consider driving electric.

Buying an electric vehicle (EV) is a great way to take meaningful action toward a clean energy future. And the best part is, there are lots of new and more affordable options available as the economics of EVs continue to improve for large segments of the car-driving population.

An EV in Your Garage

Why do you need an EV in your garage? The reality is that EVs have a lot of advantages over conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. Picture this: no more gas stations, transmission repairs, oil changes, or timing belt failures. Plus, you get immediate torque, a silent ride from a quiet motor, and premium performance. In a nutshell, EVs aren’t just a novel fad: they’re economical, they’re a pleasure to drive—and they’re also key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

Not convinced yet? Consider these points:

  • EVs are becoming mainstream. Nationwide, EV sales are expected to hit 2 percent of the new car market this year as Tesla’s Model 3 becomes one of America’s best-selling sedans. In California, the EV share is much higher—at around 7.5 percent—and the vehicles are increasingly popular in places from the U.S. northeast to metropolitan areas of Florida, Georgia, New York, Texas, and Washington.
  • EV options are expanding. With more and more options for styles, and a variety of different price ranges, your EV choices are expanding rapidly. Right now, at least 42 plug-in hybrid or battery-only EVs are on the market, and most major automakers have committed to investing in or producing new models in more categories over the next decade.
  • EVs require less maintenance. If you’re like most car owners, you dread heading to the dealer and forking over your life savings to replace the timing belt, transmission, or other engine parts as they age and break. Compared to conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, EVs have far fewer moving parts. This translates into fewer trips to the mechanic and lower maintenance costs overall—as well as, of course, no more pesky oil changes.
  • EVs save on fuel costs. The average U.S. household spends nearly a fifth of its total yearly expenditure on transportation. With an EV, you get the advantages of fueling up with electricity, which is less expensive than gasoline or diesel and generally has a more stable price. EVs are also far more efficient. By one estimate, driving an EV is roughly equivalent to fueling a conventional car with gas at $1 a gallon.
  • EVs come with financial incentives. EVs generally cost more upfront, but they have lower total ownership costs and are increasingly price-competitive with conventional gasoline vehicles. The federal government offers substantial tax credits of $2,500 to $7,500 per vehicle, and many states also provide rebates and tax credits for both EVs and charging infrastructure. In many areas, EV drivers get free access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
  • EV charging is getting even easier. Some battery-only EVs can reach up to 250 miles, but most range up to 100 miles on a single charge. For most of us, that’s farther than we drive in an average day, so an overnight charge at home should be sufficient. Meanwhile, new charging stations are being installed all across the country, and extreme fast chargers are under development that will make refueling even easier.
  • EVs reduce air pollution. Compared to fossil-fueled vehicles, EVs release fewer net emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Driving an EV can help urban areas meet federal air quality standards for ground-level ozone, the principal component of smog.
  • EVs make gas stations a thing of the past. By buying an EV instead of a gasoline-powered car, you can take real action on climate change and lead by example. Over its lifetime (from cradle to grave), an EV today causes 54 percent less carbon pollution than a comparable gas vehicle. And that number is only going to get better as our electricity grid sources more of its power from wind and solar.

These are just a few reasons why electric vehicles are generating so much interest, and are changing transportation for the better. So instead of putting another gift under the tree, maybe it’s time to drive a special (very big) one into the garage instead.