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Solar and Farming Go Together Like Turkey and Mashed Potatoes

November 23, 2022

If the thought of pouring rich gravy over your turkey and mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving has you salivating, you’re not alone. The two go together perfectly.

But you know what’s even better? When those potatoes are grown using dual-use agrivoltaics, a new idea that’s gaining momentum across the country.

It may sound complicated, but dual-use agrivoltaics is a simple concept. By placing solar panels over their fields, farmers can generate clean energy and grow food on the same plot of land – in football terms, you might even call it a “double-header” or “two-fer”. Depending on the crop, seeds are planted underneath or in between rows of panels and create a win-win situation by keeping farmland in production while generating renewable energy.

This is a climate solution we’re ready to get behind. While schools, malls, and other large parking structures are obvious choices for distributed solar—farmers are now getting in on the action with their wide swaths of open fields.

Photo credit: NPR

Farmers across the country are finding that many crops benefit from the shade and moisture that solar panels provide, and also like the extra income each month from the electricity generation. Just like mashed potatoes and gravy are good on their own, but mouth watering when combined, solar and agriculture are just better together.

Here’s why it’s so important that we expand this technology.

Solar is essential for a fossil fuel-free future

Just about any scenario in which humanity breaks ties with fossil fuels involves solar playing a starring role. A recent study from the Net Zero America project, initiated by Princeton University, highlights this point; for America to be powered entirely sans-carbon in 2050, solar production will have to ramp up more than 20x today’s current load.

The science is clear that we need a lot more solar. But, where are we going to put all these panels, and will they come at the expense of food production? Which communities stand to benefit from this energy revolution, and which will get the short end of the stick?

When done right, all parties—farmers, solar companies, and everyone in between—can reap the rewards. Research shows that when leveraging agrivoltaics, “solar panels provide shade for plants to grow more efficiently with less water, [while] the cooler and wetter microclimate created by the plants helps the solar panels cool down and operate more efficiently.” Sounds pretty symbiotic.

Solar-blueberry researchers

Photo credit: University of Maine Extension

Not all crops thrive underneath panels. A project in Massachusetts had better results with cranberries than blueberries, and peppers in Arizona have done especially well. It seems that leafy greens, potatoes, and carrots are some of the best-suited crops for agrivoltaics, since the shade helps them thrive.

Speaking for the trees… and solar panels

The people of Virginia are facing this topic head on. The Randolph Solar Project is a massive undertaking in the middle of the state, which requires the clearing of 3,500 acres of forest to make room for the enormous array. In return for the cleared land, the people of Virginia stand to gain over 1,000 jobs, increased government revenues, and 800 MW of power.

SolUnesco is the developer of the Randolph project, and maintains that its consideration for local ecology—including building wildlife corridors, protecting drinking water sources, and limiting erosion—makes the project a win-win for the environment and humans alike.

But Virginians are still skeptical about whether the pros of the Randolph project outweigh the cons. Its state legislature recently passed a bill that established an advisory board that will study its impacts in more depth.

Arjun Makhijani, founder of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, sums it up well: “Solar [arrays] on farmland should be required to be dual use.” Areas cleared or designated for panels alone are often unnecessary and wasteful.

By building on existing knowledge and trying new strategies, there shouldn’t be any reason why solar power and certain crops can’t exist symbiotically. We just need to make sure everyone has a seat at the table in order to get it right.

“It’s not so much about green energy at all, but economics”

That’s what Kerri Johannsen, energy program director with the Iowa Environmental Council, had to say about the decision for farmers to adopt solar installations on their land.

That doesn’t mean Iowans don’t care about the environment. At the end of the day, a farm needs to generate profits in order to continue operating.

Wild swings in energy and input prices, a pandemic shock, and trade tensions with China have slashed farm incomes. Farms are arguably the backbone of countless communities across the nation. Small operations make up half of America’s farmland and nearly 90% of farms overall. Bankruptcies are on the rise, and the future of farming is on track to be dominated by a few gigantic companies.

We can help reverse this trend by encouraging more farmers to take a look at solar, and increase the ways their land can work for them, and the planet.

The additional income can be the difference between selling a farm that’s been in the family for multiple generations, or setting your kids up for a secure future in the clean energy economy. In Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, income from clean energy on farms represents 6% of gross income. This energy income tends to be much more stable month-to-month than certain crops, which can be affected by poor weather and global production levels.

Farmers can have their cake (or pie) and eat it, too. Adding solar panels that cover certain crops can increase yields, provide a sorely-needed income source for their families, and generate clean energy. What’s not to like?

So, as you’re savoring your turkey and mashed potatoes this Thanksgiving, remember that clean energy and food production can pair together just as well.

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When Should I Get Solar?

May 11, 2022

Since we got solar on our home almost three years ago, we’ve had dozens of conversations with others asking me all sorts of questions about it. How does it work? What does it cost? How long do the panels last? What about clouds? And one of the most common: “When should I go solar?” We’ve hit on the basics of rooftop solar before but didn’t get too far into the details.

I recently wrote an article titled When should I buy an EV? that has become popular among our readers. So I figured a lot of people likely have the same question when it comes to solar.

Solar tends to feel a bit more of a technical endeavor than electric vehicles, and frankly, that’s because some of the specifics are. I’ll be diving into some of the reasons solar works or doesn’t work for some households, but know this: most solar installers will do all this work for you. While it can be helpful to know some of the ins and outs of why a solar company is making decisions, you don’t necessarily have to get bogged down in the details if you don’t want to. 

The easiest way to start? Grab a few free quotes from EnergySage within minutes, or keep reading to see exactly when solar makes sense for you. You can also check out Google’s Project Sunroof to get a savings estimate and find out solar works for your home.

Practicality—Is Solar Practical for My Home?

Roof direction

Solar panels work best when installed on a south-facing roof. Type in your address to Google Maps for an easy way to get a general idea of the direction of the slopes of your roof. A south-facing roof ensures that your solar panels are getting the most amount of sunlight for the day as possible. Project Sunroof may also be able to give you an immediate idea of the solar potential of your home.

Just because your roof isn’t facing the perfect direction doesn’t mean solar is out of the question. Personally, I have solar panels on the back and front of my roof, which faces southwest and northeast respectively, and solar still absolutely makes sense for us. 

Shade

Depending on your situation, shade may be a deterrent to getting solar. If you have large trees that cover a significant portion of your roof with shade, then it could drastically reduce the available area where solar panels could be installed

If you have a large tree that you love on your property that covers your roof, all is not lost.

  1. Trim: You may not need to completely cut down a tree that is shading your roof. Especially if your roof is only partially shaded, selective trimming can open up your roof in just the right amount to get enough sunlight.
  2. Half-cut solar panels. Half-cut solar panels are a type of panel that works better in shaded areas. In short, it works by doubling the number of cells on a panel. They are more expensive, so your payback period may increase—but don’t write it off until you see the final numbers.

Size

Aside from asking about the cost, most people ask me “How many panels do you need?” This is all dependent on the household. A good solar installer will recommend getting only as large of a system as you know you’ll use. There is no real benefit to getting a system that produces more energy than you need over the course of the year.

You can find determine your required system size by looking at your electricity bills. Find the section on your bill that says exactly how many KiloWatt Hours (kWh) you used—that’s how much electricity your home needed. Ideally, a solar installer will want to see how much you used through a 12-month period.

Example: My house uses around 8,200 watt-hours of electricity per year (this includes charging our electric car). So my solar system is an 8.2kWh system.

Panels for residential homes range from 250W-435W in efficiency—the more powerful solar panels tend to cost more. If you have plenty of space for panels (such as a large roof or field to install a ground mount) then lower-efficiency panels could make more sense for you. If you have more limited space or higher than average electricity bills, then higher efficiency panels may be required.

The solar installer will calculate exactly how many panels you’ll need to produce enough electricity, but the math entails a combination of not only panel wattage rating, but also the “solar insolation” — how many hours of sun will hit the panels in a year. The Department of Energy offers a free calculator that can give you a good idea of your total roof capacity.

Getting more than one quote from different installers allows you to ensure you’re getting the right-sized system.

Lifespan

A solar panel’s “useful lifespan” is generally considered to be 25-30 years. However, because there are no moving parts to a solar panel, they often far outlive their warranties. In fact, the world’s first modern solar panel still works, even 60 years later

Even after a panel’s “useful life” is over, that doesn’t mean the panel is worthless or doesn’t produce any energy. There is a general rule of thumb for solar panel warranties on how much electricity they are guaranteed to produce:  You can expect a minimum of 90% of their original production output at 10 years and 80% at 25 years. Technology is improving more and more every year, and some newer panels are guaranteeing a whopping 92% of original efficiency even at 25-years-old!

This is a rule of thumb, so you should confirm with your installer the warranty of the panels you’ll use.

Bonus: Energy Efficiency

Whenever I talk to someone about getting solar panels, I always start with home energy efficiency first. The best “bang for the buck” when it comes to saving on energy costs is to first ensure your home is as efficient as possible with how it uses electricity first, and then to get solar panels to match that new efficiency.

Attic and crawlspace insulation, modern double–pane windows, properly fitting doors, and energy-efficient appliances and light fixtures are some of the best ways to reduce costs and energy use. Once you’ve ensured your home is as energy efficient as possible, then it’s time to get a solar quote.

Cost:

Cost Per Watt

This is the biggest question: how much does it cost? Like with all answers, it depends. The average cost for a solar system to be installed on a home is between $18,000 and $20,000—here’s the kicker, that’s before tax incentives, which can dramatically reduce the cost of your overall system (which we’ll get into next).

When comparing quotes, the main number to pay attention to is the cost per watt. That’s how much money you’ll pay per watt of energy your system will generate.

Another Example:

Solar Company A gives you a quote of $18,000 for a 5.1kWh system — meaning you’re paying $3.53 per watt (18,000/5,100=3.529)

Solar Company B gives you a quote of $20,000 for a 7.2kWh system — meaning you’re paying $2.78 per watt (20,000/7,200=2.777).

Solar Company B is giving you a much better cost per watt than Solar Company A. Just be sure the size of your system matches the needs of your home.

Incentives

There is a federal tax credit for installing a residential solar system equal to 26% of the total cost. In the above scenario, this means that $20,000 effectively only costs $14,800—a savings of $5,200 (which brings that cost per watt down to $2.05).

This federal incentive has been slowly reduced over the years (in 2019 it was 30%) and will go down to 22% in 2023. As of now, this credit expires completely at the end of 2023 and is not set to renew unless Congress acts. So if you’re interested in solar, it could make sense to take advantage of these large federal incentives sooner rather than later.

[The federal tax credit] expires completely at the end of 2023…So if you’re interested in solar, it could make sense to take advantage of these large federal incentives sooner rather than later.

Many states and localities also offer various solar incentives. Some of these manifest as cash rebates, tax credits or deductions, or property tax abatements to reduce your overall financial obligations. Check out DSIRE for a comprehensive list of all the state and local incentives for solar.

Payment

Paying outright cash for your solar system usually means the installer will provide a slight discount on the overall cost. Many homebuyers, however (myself included) will get a loan. This can be done privately or through the installer who finances via third-party financing.

Usually, solar loans require a downpayment that is equal to the amount of the tax credit. This downpayment is often deferred 12-18 months from the time your system is installed. Many times your monthly payment is also deferred until that first downpayment comes due. This is to give time for you to file your taxes and receive the tax credit.

Another example: You got a loan for a $20,000 solar system that was installed in January of 2022. You would pay no money on your loan until June of 2023. Then the downpayment of $5,200 would be due (you should have received this amount extra back in taxes by now) and your monthly payments begin.

Net Metering

One of the most important pieces of residential solar is the term “net metering.” This is a blanket term for a number of different policies that allow energy customers (you) to get a credit for excess electricity that you produce. Chances are, you’ll be producing more energy than you’re using during the day, and using more than you’re producing during the night.

The same goes for the season. On average, your system will produce more electricity than you need during the spring, summer, and fall months, and you’ll likely use more energy than you produce during the winter.

In short, net metering is a vital component of a successful solar system. Without it, it’s unlikely that solar makes sense for the vast majority of people.

The tricky thing about net metering is that it is not standard. It varies not only state-by-state, but also utility-by-utility. Solar Reviews does a great job of grading states based on their specific and nuanced net metering policies.

Bonus: EV charger

Some solar installers offer the ability to install an electric vehicle charger in your home, at the time of installation of your solar system. Especially if you have or are looking to purchase an electric car in the future, this can amount to thousands of dollars saved. Because electricians are already running power lines through your house, they save lots of time by running both lines for your solar and your EV charger during the same trip. In turn, this shaves hundreds or even thousands of dollars of the cost.

Getting a Quote

With the explosion in the popularity of solar in part due to the sharp reduction in costs, it’s easier than ever to find a solar installer near you. I highly recommend getting more than one quote. Similar to many large purchases such as a car, I would also recommend negotiating with the installer to get the best possible price.

The easiest way to get a handful of quotes is to go through EnergySage — a free service that allows you to get competing solar quotes without ever having to actually talk to a salesperson. However, their marketplace only shows installers that have signed up with them. It’s a quick and easy way to get a handful of quotes, but do some research into local installers near you that may not be a part of EnergySage’s marketplace.

An excellent way to leverage buying power is to join a solar co-op (which is what I did) through Solar United Neighbors. This allows multiple families in a town to pool together and request a quote as a group. Oftentimes solar installers will offer significant bulk discounts if it means they can sign on multiple homes in a short period of time.

The final calculation

While there are a lot of things to think about during the process of going solar, in the end, one final equation can help determine if it makes sense for you.

Go on your electric utility’s website and add all of your electric bills up from the past 12 months to get a full year’s worth of electricity costs.

Divide that number by twelve (12 months in a year) to get your average electrical bill payment. Assuming your potential solar system covers all of your electricity for the year, if your proposed loan payment is equal to or less than the total electrical payment, then get solar!

Proposed Solar Loan Payment Average monthly bill

This little calculation is the easiest way to determine right now if it makes immediate sense to switch to solar.

Note: 

I’m not a certified financial planner and don’t pretend to offer financial advice, but even if your loan payment is slightly higher than your average bill, it may still make sense for you to go solar.

Electricity rates trend upward; it’s almost a surefire bet that your utility will raise the price of electricity in the next ten years. So your bill will likely increase, but your solar loan payment won’t. Plus, your loan is temporary. Once the solar is paid off, you’re living off free energy.

Plus, if you don’t yet own an EV, that is a great way to save even more money with solar. Because electric vehicles are cheaper to “fuel” than gasoline vehicles, your overall payback period is significantly reduced if you count the amount of money you save by charging your car with the sun. Talk about “local energy.”

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Story: A Third Generation Coal Miner Turned Solar Installer

February 23, 2022

Matthew McFadden was born and raised in Wise County in southwestern Virginia’s coal country. In the mid-2000s, McFadden was working in sales at a local electronics company, while several members of his family worked as miners in underground coal mines. “I saw what my brother-in-law and my father-in-law were bringing in monetarily and explored that [profession],” McFadden said. 

It seemed like a natural career path for someone who grew up in a coalfield region. “It’s part of who we are,” McFadden said. Eventually, McFadden completed his training certification in underground mining.

Two miners uses pickaxes in a coal mine.
Coal mining in Wise County dates back more than a century. Photo: Virginia Coal Heritage Trail.

As luck would have it, on the day he went to meet a mine foreman for a potential job, he got lost; McFadden didn’t connect with him. He went to his father-in-law’s house afterward and as they sat on the porch, the two men had a heart-to-heart conversation. “He urged me not to pursue underground mining,” McFadden said.

McFadden’s father-in-law had more than 30 years of experience working as an underground coal miner. He lived through the industry’s boom in the 1970s and its bust in the 1980s when demand for coal from Appalachian mines declined significantly. Factors that contributed to that decline included clean air regulations, competition with other fossil fuels, and technological advances that replaced workers with machines

In some ways, a coal miner’s job is not too dissimilar to what their great-grandparents would have done, such as shovel coal deep underground. Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty.

“My father-in-law is a hero of mine,” McFadden said. “He loved what he did... He had fun down there with all the folks he knew, and [he] knew he was providing a good and honest life for his family. Being a life-long miner was something he was really proud of.” 

His father-in-law was frank, too, about the toll underground mining takes on the body and the danger of the work itself. “He said he didn’t want his daughter to have to worry every day – like her mom did – about whether I would come home or not.” 

“He said he didn’t want his daughter to have to worry every day – like her mom did – about whether I would come home or not” 

McFadden’s father-in-law isn’t wrong—Coal mining is a dangerous business. Even with the precipitous decline of coal use in America, seven fatalities have already occured this year, as of the writing of this article. The CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have known for decades about the cancerous effects of the carcinogens in coal mine dust that miners breathe while underground. All the while some coal companies have been found incorrectly denying miner’s medical claims from working in these dangerous conditions.

McFadden heeded his father-in-law’s advice. He continued to pursue a career in consumer electronics as a project and training manager. But this work moved him away from home to jobs in Charlottesville and Richmond. 

McFadden wasn’t the only one moving away from the region either. The coal mining activity in southwestern Virginia continued to decline through the Great Recession of 2008 and beyond. McFadden said many miners attribute those job losses to the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. Coal jobs that went away never came back. 

In part, the health and safety standards that the Clean Power Plan introduced made coal more expensive to produce, and in turn, it began to lose market share. A 2015 report by the Economic Policy Institute anticipated that gross job losses as a result of the Clean Power Plan likely would be geographically concentrated, “raising the challenge of ensuring a fair transition for workers in sectors likely to contract due to the CPP.”

While the Clean Power Plan made coal more expensive, coal consumption had been declining from its peak since 2000 across the country, 15 years before the Clean Power Plan was introduced. Since its peak decline in 2007 through 2013, coal-fired electricity generation fell 25 percent. Coal was unable to compete with cheaper energy sources, namely natural gas produced by fracking

“So people moved or they had to try to retrain on something else,” McFadden said. Most of the time, “they weren’t making anywhere near what they were making before. So it was quite a large life adjustment for a lot of these folks and for the towns and businesses.”

Making a living in different cities didn’t feel right for McFadden. He wished the money he was earning could’ve gone back to help his hometown, where he wanted to raise his daughter. 

When he looked into returning home, McFadden learned about up and coming jobs in renewable energy. He found a job with a company that makes commercial-scale solar energy affordable to schools, hospitals, businesses and local governments in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions.

Solar panels on roof of Duffield Regional Jail in Southwest Virginia, near Wise County. Photo: Christine Gyovai.

McFadden loves to work for a company that’s creating jobs with livable wages that support families and encourage young people to stay in town. 

“These aren’t just flash-in-the-pan jobs,” he said. “These are going to be jobs that people are going to be able to make careers out of by building these systems, operating and maintaining them.”

Renewable energy companies working in the region along with his are also working with community colleges to help create internships and training programs. They’re employing long-time skilled professionals, like electricians and construction workers. He thinks the region is well suited to continue its legacy as an energy producer. 

“Why not take advantage of what we’ve done in the past?” he said. “We’ve got areas that have been stripmined where the land is useless. We can take that land and put something that makes somebody’s house light up… that powers their computer. Whatever it is, we can still be an energy powerhouse.”

Creating a livable and brighter future for his daughter also motivates his work in solar energy. “Climate change is real,” he said, “and we need to make the world a better place for not only our children but also our great, great grandchildren… so that the world is not 100 degrees on average and the ice caps aren’t melted.” 

“Climate change is real, and we need to make the world a better place for not only our children but also our great, great grandchildren”

His company will soon install solar panels at his 9-year-old daughter’s school. McFadden’s face lights up at the thought of his little girl looking up at the solar panels at her school. He knows his daughter will feel proud and “know that her dad helped make it happen.” 

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The Energy Transition is about People Power

February 16, 2022

By now, you might have a pretty good sense of what the clean energy future looks like, at least from a technological standpoint. Maybe your neighbors are installing solar panels on their roof, or you’ve started driving a hybrid or electric car for your daily commute. But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in the energy transition that might be less apparent. A key trend is the shift from top-down ownership and control of our energy system toward greater “people power.” So what does this mean?  

From centralized to decentralized energy

Most Americans still get their electricity from a relatively small number of big power players— utilities that, together with governments, set the rules for how energy is produced, distributed, and valued. But the growth in distributed energy resources—a fancy phrase for technologies like rooftop solar, electric vehicles, and energy storage—allows us to keep energy local, offering a chance to flip the current model on its head. Distributed resources, like solar and energy storage, can save us money on electricity costs, reduce pollution, and boost local economies, while being scalable and ready to deploy now.

Distributed resources, like solar and energy storage, can save us money on electricity costs, reduce pollution, and boost local economies, while being scalable and ready to deploy now.

By 2025, the combined capacity of these energy resources in the United States is projected to reach 387 gigawatts, driven by a whopping $110 billion in investment over a five-year period. Communities are embracing distributed energy as a way to tackle climate change and boost local resilience in the face of extreme weather events like wildfires and hurricanes. Falling costs for solar panels and batteries have made distributed resources increasingly affordable, especially when coupled with tax credits and rebates that soften the bite for everyday Americans. 

Power to the people

Distributed energy resources empower us in other, critical ways. Under the current energy structure, power monopolies have an outsized voice, not only influencing how the rules are made (and who they benefit), but also holding sway over our elected officials through lobbying dollars. Power companies typically extract wealth from our communities, with our utility bill payments leaving the local economy. The existing energy system isn’t just unfair and undemocratic—it reinforces centuries of structural racism, with the highest energy burdens falling on low-income communities and communities of color. 

The shift to distributed (decentralized) power can change all this. It creates opportunities for more dispersed patterns of ownership and control of energy production. It allows for a more democratic energy system where “we the people”—local communities, businesses, and households—take back our power by producing our own electricity. We gain more leverage in the energy system by being involved in the planning, funding, management, governance, and execution of clean energy projects. 

Greater people power can also lead to more equitable energy outcomes, helping to address race, class, and gender inequalities and enabling a just transition to a decarbonized energy system.

Centralized < Decentralized

Examples of people power

The possibilities for energy democracy are diverse and growing. Here are just a few examples:

  • “Prosumer” households and businesses: At its simplest, we can take back control over our energy supply by installing a few solar panels at our home or business. In our new role as prosumers (both consumers and producers of energy), we can generate all or part of our own energy and even make money selling our excess generation back to the grid (if state policies allow it).
  • Community energy: At a collective level, we can join forces with our neighbors, a community group, or a local utility to create a community energy project, such as a solar array on a local church or a locally owned wind farm. As of 2019, there were around 834 community solar projects in the U.S., dominated by projects in Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota, and Colorado. 
  • Energy storage: By adding a battery bank, we can store the excess electricity we produce on-site for later use. The PowerBank Community Storage System in Mandurah, Australia, enables residents in one neighborhood to store their excess solar production in a shared Tesla Powerpack and then withdraw energy when they want, up to 8 kilowatts a day for a small daily fee. Similarly, vehicle-to-grid technology allows owners of electric vehicles (including school districts that own electric school buses) to store power in their vehicle batteries for later use or to feed back to the grid.
  • Aggregation: Some locales are making it possible to bundle, or aggregate, the power generated by multiple individual or community energy producers in order to make the electricity supply more reliable and consistent, and to make it easier for others to access and trade this power. Some places have combined several smaller distributed wind or solar resources into virtual power plants.
  • Peer-to-peer energy trading: Through this model, distributed energy producers use a digital trading platform to directly sell any excess power they produce to other local residents, essentially sidestepping the traditional utility relationship. For example, members of the Brooklyn Microgrid in New York City use a digital app to buy and sell energy on a local marketplace, helping prosumers profit from their extra production and giving their non-power-producing neighbors access to cheaper, clean energy.

Accelerating energy democracy

Despite the vast opportunity, many distributed energy technologies remain inaccessible or unaffordable to folks who lack the financing or who live in rental properties. To overcome some of these barriers, the 30 Million Solar Homes partnership aims to power 30 million U.S. households (about 1 in 4) with rooftop or community solar over a five-year period, including in historically marginalized communities. 

Power companies can support distributed clean energy by embracing new business models, like solar leasing, that share more of the benefits locally. The role of utilities will change with the shift in energy ownership. They may soon be paying us to access the distributed resources in our buildings, rooftops, and cars. As they strive to meet our preferences and demands, their political influence may weaken. 

Governments can facilitate energy democracy by supporting communities in the design, ownership, and management of energy systems. This includes embracing policies like net metering that compensate local producers, and supporting community energy projects through low-interest loans, preferential procurement, and by providing access to public spaces. Governments can also enact regulations that mandate the integration of local, community energy into neighborhood developments.

With the growth in distributed energy resources, it’s time to take control of our energy system. Ideally, we’ll get to the point where we can fully design our own energy mix, selecting the specific projects that generate the energy we want—whether from our own rooftops, from a neighbor’s solar installation, or from a local wind farm. With this shift in power, we could usher in an era of true energy democracy.

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The Lowdown on Clean Energy Incentives

January 26, 2022

We’ve written a lot about the financial benefits of solar, electric vehicles, and energy efficiency (spoiler alert: there are a ton of them). Speeding the transition to a clean energy future means getting these game-changing tools in the hands of as many people as possible, as fast as possible. One way to help do that is through financial incentives that make the initial purchase of these products easier. 

A plethora of tax credits, utility incentives and other rebates for electric vehicles, solar panels and energy efficiency make it easier to transition to a clean energy future. Let’s break down a sampling of federal and state incentives and how to use them.

Electric vehicles

The federal government offers a $7,500 tax credit for most new electric vehicles. Many new EVs are price below $40,000, which equates to nearly 20% off the sticker price. This dollar amount does decrease for each manufacturers as it hits certain sales thresholds, and at the time of this initial post (early 2022) some of the more well-known names like Tesla and GM no longer qualify for the credit. However, the vast majority of car makers such as Ford, Hyundai and Kia still qualify for the full $7,500 incentive.  

Almost every state offers some incentive to purchase an EV,  (check out both of these resources here and here to see what your state offers) from tax exemptions in such places as Washington state and Washington, D.C., to cash rebates in such states as California, Massachusetts and Oregon. These incentives range in value based on a person’s income and/or the size of the purchased electric vehicle’s battery. Additionally, many utility companies across the country offer cash rebates for EV owners who want to install Level 2 chargers in their homes.

So how are these credits and incentives applied when you’re at the dealership ready to buy your EV? You have to pay for the EV’s sticker price upfront — in cash or through a loan — and apply for those cash rebates after your purchase. 

At tax time, Uncle Sam would knock off $7,500 from your federal taxes due. If you don’t owe that much in taxes, the credit rolls over to the following tax year. For state tax exemptions, you either wouldn’t have to pay a sales tax at the time of purchase or you wouldn’t have to pay other types of car taxes, depending on the type of exemption your home state offers.

What about would-be EV purchasers that aren’t able to take advantage of tax credits (which give the most benefit to households that have a large tax burden)? The Biden Administration proposed big changes to this program in its Build Back Better plan — changes that would help address that inequity and encourage the widespread adoption of EVs. 

Among the proposed changes, it would make the tax credit refundable – meaning you’d get back any money left over after the IRS applies the EV credit to your tax bill. Used electric vehicles also would be eligible for the tax credit. And the credit would go up from $7,500 to $10,500 specifically for EVs made in the U.S. by union workers. 

Though the Build Back Better Act failed to pass the Senate, Democrats in Congress want to move forward with the bill’s climate portion as a standalone climate bill. So there’s still some hope the Biden Administration will revamp the federal tax credit program for EVs and make it more accessible to individuals and families who earn low to middle incomes.

COMEDIANS CONQUERING CLIMATE CHANGE

Check out the latest episode from the podcast

 

Solar panels

This year (2022) is the last year people can get a 26% federal tax credit on the cost of home solar panels. Starting in 2023, the tax credit goes down to 22%. The tax credit for solar panels works in the same way as the tax credit for EVs. You pay for solar panels upfront or finance it through a loan. When it’s time to file your taxes, this nonrefundable tax credit lowers your tax bill for the tax year when the solar panels were installed. If the credit for your solar panels is more than you owe in taxes, then the tax credit carries over to the next tax year.

Several states also offer incentives to install residential solar. Just like with EVs, these incentives vary from state to state. In Oregon, the state is offering rebates for both solar panels and battery storage. It pays the rebates to the solar contractors who then pass on the savings to the consumers. In Rhode Island, the state offers a 10% to 25% subsidy through a special grant program. In other states, utility companies or cities offer these financial incentives. 

You can search for these financial incentives by starting with your local utility company or your city’s or state’s energy department – or start with this database.

Energy efficiency

The federal government offers a range of tax credits for energy efficient home equipment and improvements. You could get up to a $500 tax credit for insulating your home or up to a $200 tax credit for replacing your drafty windows with Energy Star-certified ones. 

You can pair these federal tax credits with cash incentives or discounts offered by many nonprofits, collective groups and utility companies throughout the country. For example, National Grid, a utility company that operates in New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, offers home energy assessments and steep discounts – up to 75% – for energy efficiency improvements. The Energy Trust of Oregon, a nonprofit, offers cash rebates for a variety of energy saving solutions (e.g. new windows, insulation, heating and cooling). 

Even without subsidies, investing in electric vehicles, solar panels and energy efficiency saves money in the long run. These incentives, however, do make the transition easier, particularly because many utility companies and nonprofits have a mission to serve low- to middle-income individuals and families. These clean energy transitions not only benefit our pocketbooks, but also benefit our collective health by reducing carbon emissions and speeding the transition to a clean energy future.

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Student Solar Project Bridges Digital Divide in Rural Virginia

December 8, 2021

A school district in Virginia harnesses solar power to create wi-fi access throughout its county, helping to bridge its community’s digital divide and preparing its high school students for jobs in the solar energy industry.

Marcy Pennella relies on a mobile hotspot device for internet access at her home in Louisa County, Virginia. “I live surrounded by woods, so it works if it’s not cloudy or dark out,” Pennella said. 

Pennella, a kindergarten teacher, usually tries to finish her work at school. But since the start of the pandemic, she and members of her family occasionally drive five minutes away from their house to a solar-powered wi-fi station on wheels, designed and built by Louisa County Public Schools. These stations are called WOW, or Wireless on Wheels.

In one instance her older daughter needed to take a midterm but their hotspot device was too slow.  “She went to [the] WOW station and it worked really well,” Pennella said. “It was fast – no spinning or delays or anything. No login information required. And she took her midterm in 30 minutes.” 

Local Solar, Local Solutions

Photo courtesy of Louisa County Public Schools

Educators and administrators at Louisa County Public Schools had families like Pennella’s in mind when stay-at-home orders took effect at the start of the pandemic last year in March. 

“Many of our families in our community do not have internet connectivity,” said Doug Straley, Louisa County Public Schools superintendent. The county, which is 514 square miles with a population of about 37,000 people, is largely rural and about two to four years away from having fiber optic internet access across the county. 

Straley said his school district anticipated students’ need for internet access to learn from home as well as people’s need for internet access as they work from home.  

To bridge this digital divide during the pandemic, the school district set up 32 of these WOW stations throughout the county in parking lots at churches, grocery stores and any other businesses willing to share their parking lots. 

Louisa County Public Schools Superintendent Douglas Straley successfully lobbied the county’s school division to support these WOW units with local funding. Photo courtesy of Louisa County Public Schools

“At that time [in March 2020] the amount of fear and anxiety to even leave your house was so high,” said Kenny Bouwens, who directs the Career and Technical Education and STEAM and innovation programs at Louis County Public Schools. He said going to Starbucks, McDonald’s or the library for internet access was not an option. 

So Bouwens and his colleagues designed these WOW stations so that 1: wi-fi could be powered by the sun — no need to keep them plugged into an electricity source — and 2: people could feel safe accessing the internet while they stayed in their cars. 

The school district also adapted its teaching style. “A lot of that [school] work is interactive stuff you could do offline and then upload,” Bouwens said. “Students go to WOW units for maybe 10 to 15 minutes to upload their assignments, download their new assignments, and then go back home. And that was the only model that we felt would work really well at that time, with how quickly we had to transition to a virtual hybrid learning model.”

Video courtesy of Louisa County Public Schools

Real World Solar Training for Students

High school students enrolled in both construction and energy and power classes helped build  the WOW units.

“We hit the ground running and knocked them out pretty quick,” Bouwens said. 

The school district offers a rich curriculum on energy generation, focused on both solar and nuclear energy (the county is home to a nuclear power plant). It’s expanding its solar energy curriculum with more hands-on learning. 

“We’re in the process of building something we’re dubbing the Solar House,” said David Childress, the school district’s director of technology. This is the building where high school students will learn all about solar power installation and about adding distributed energy to the power grid.

“We’re also getting ready to build a solar array in the central office that is going to offset the power utilization for EV chargers that we’re planning to put at each of our locations,” Childress said. “It’s going to offset the electric bills at our other locations, so we’ll still be net zero on it.”

“A big part of this push is giving our students training so that they could nail a job interview with companies like Dominion Energy, Sun Tribe Solar or Sigora Solar or any of these big solar installers,” Bouwens said.

A big part of this push is giving our students training so that they could nail a job interview with …any of these big solar installers.

Bouwens said he and his colleagues keep close track of projections on employment data. “And the solar industry right now overall is growing,” he said. “But really one of the areas that’s exploding is the install. Companies are looking for people who can work on solar install projects, whether it’s residential or commercial.”

Bouwens said the school district wants its students to be able to “get some of the certifications and industry credentials they would need to start out and be successful right off the bat in kind of an entry level to mid-entry level install position.”

Louisa County Public Schools is wise to put their students on that path. To reach President Joe Biden’s goal of reaching 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035, the nation will need to quadruple its workforce and add 900,000 more trained workers

Beyond training for future well-paying careers, students at the start of the pandemic not only worked on amazing hands-on projects, Bouwens said, “but they [also] got that feeling of citizenship and helping their community, which is something that we always push here in Louisa County Public Schools.”

The benefit of the WOW units continues to be widely felt. “They’re everywhere,” Pennella said. “It’s a great tool for the community.” 

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Solar and storage can help hospitals save money, and lives

October 27, 2021

It may not surprise you to learn that the healthcare sector is one of the largest carbon emitters in the country. It accounts for 10% of the nation’s carbon emissions and 9% of the nation’s non-greenhouse air pollutants that harm health. And that’s ironic for community assets focused on health. More frequent and intense climate-related disasters threaten the ability of hospitals, in particular, to take care of their patients. 

We don’t have to look to the future to imagine what those threats would look like. Several hospitals across the country and U.S. territories have already lived through dire situations during wildfires and hurricanes in places such as California, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico

Some hospitals had to evacuate. Other healthcare workers had to pump ventilators by hand to keep their patients alive. During Hurricane Maria, blocked roads prevented doctors and people who needed care from getting to hospitals. If it was difficult for doctors to get to hospitals, you can imagine that transporting diesel in the middle of a crisis would also be tough, expensive and unsafe. These disasters underscore the risks of relying on fossil-fuel backup generators and the need to increase the energy resilience of hospitals.

These disasters underscore the risks of relying on fossil-fuel backup generators and the need to increase the energy resilience of hospitals. 

Renewables = Resilience

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Health care systems can bear the brunt better by enhancing their resilience with solar power and large capacity battery storage. (In case you missed it, we wrote about the promise of battery storage earlier this year). 

More and more hospital administrators recognize the big role hospitals could play in reducing emissions. With solar power, hospitals reduce their direct emissions generated by fossil fuels – and the social cost of carbon along with it. “Eliminating our carbon footprint is one of the most effective ways we can contribute to a healthier environment and improve conditions for health and equity,” said Yvette Radford, vice president of External and Community Affairs at Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

A rooftop solar panel array on a Kaiser Permanente building in Santa Clara, CA.

In 2020, Kaiser Permanente became the first health system in the United States to become carbon neutral. It achieved this goal through a combination of different investments, including in solar power. The U.S. Department of Energy noted in a 2015 report that one of the largest technical barriers for hospitals to install solar panels is insufficient roof space due to medical equipment. Kaiser worked around this challenge by installing solar panels over building garages, which created “carports” with EV-charging stations. 

Hospitals have some of the largest energy demands because they run critical, high-tech equipment around the clock. According to the DOE, that means they are more vulnerable to rising fuel prices and price volatility than other commercial sectors. Investing in solar can protect against those rising or volatile prices. 

The DOE also recommends improving energy efficiency before or in conjunction with investments in renewable energy. As of September 2020, Kaiser also reduced its demand for energy by 8% since 2013 by improving energy efficiency throughout its facilities. In all, renewable energy powers Kaiser for about half of its energy needs, saving the healthcare system millions of dollars. 

Pairing solar with battery storage is critical to boosting resilience. Together they supply power during power outages or in the midst of natural disasters when the power grid goes down. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, for example, a children’s hospital and several fire stations continue to rely on solar panels and battery storage to run its critical equipment any time the power grid is down. These solar panels and battery storage were installed within a couple of weeks after Hurricane Maria struck the country in 2017. Solar power and battery storage allow the fire stations and children’s hospital to keep life-saving equipment powered on when it most needs it. 

Solar power and battery storage allow the fire stations and children’s hospital to keep life-saving equipment powered on when it most needs it. 

But would solar panels hold up during severe weather? In North Carolina, solar farms were put to the test during Hurricane Florence. They survived the hurricane’s power wind and rainfall with minimal damage. This is a significant finding in the state with the second largest capacity of solar power in the country. 

As climate related disasters increase in frequency and intensity, hospitals can position themselves to save money, be more resilient and reduce emissions that threaten our collective health. 

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“Decarbing” the Grid with Solar by 2035

October 6, 2021

In early September, the federal government released one of its most ambitious plans yet for the U.S. clean energy transition. The Department of Energy (DOE), in its Solar Futures Study, outlined a blueprint to power the country with a whopping 40 percent solar energy by 2035—a mere 14 years from now. This shift would require dramatically restructuring the electricity system and embracing a whole new perspective on how and where we get our energy, with the goal of eventually reaching a zero-carbon-emissions grid. But how realistic is this solar transition, especially given the short time horizon?

The amount of electricity that the DOE envisions as coming from solar alone in 2035 is more than American homes consume in total today, from all energy sources. To get to such a high solar share in the next 14 years, the U.S. would need to quadruple the amount of solar power that it adds to the grid every year, so that by 2035 around 1,000 gigawatts of installed solar capacity would be supplying our homes and workplaces. To put this in perspective, last year the U.S. installed 15 gigawatts of solar, for a cumulative total of 76 gigawatts. That itself was a record amount, and it represented just 3 percent of the country’s total electricity supply. So we’re talking a full-on solar explosion to get to 40 percent. 

The good news is the DOE says it’s doable, and the benefits would be unquestionable. For one, we’d have a much cleaner power grid, significantly reducing both local pollution from fossil fuel power plants and the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The Solar Futures Study estimates that the health savings alone from reduced carbon emissions and improved air quality would reach $1.7 trillion—far more than the cost of making the entire transition to solar. We’d also transform our economy, with the push to solarize the grid employing up to 1.5 million people by 2035 (3 million if you include all clean energy technologies). And importantly, this could all happen without having to raise electricity prices, because of the savings from improvements in technologies. 

And importantly, this could all happen without having to raise electricity prices…

Getting to 40 percent

It might sound too good to be true, but there’s actually a pretty clear pathway toward making it all happen—at least on paper. The crux of the solar (and wider clean energy) transition involves “electrifying everything”—that is, moving our transportation, home heating and cooling, and other key energy-consuming systems to run on electricity rather than carbon-intensive fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. The key to reaping these benefits is powering the electricity supply itself with clean energy, including the envisioned large solar share, but also wind, nuclear, and other non-fossil energy sources. 

This would require strong, targeted, and immediate decarbonization efforts across the economy. It would also require modernizing our lagging electricity grids to accommodate the variable nature of solar and wind energy—the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. This means ramping up complementary solutions like advanced forecasting, large-scale energy storage (like the massive battery systems now being deployed in California and Florida) and the seamless integration of backup generation from other clean energy sources to ensure flexibility in grid operations.

Key considerations: economics and materials

From an economic perspective, the odds are in solar’s favor. The costs of solar generation have plummeted nearly 90 percent in the past decade, making it the cheapest and fastest-growing clean energy source. (Solar costs have jumped slightly since the pandemic due mainly to supply chain challenges, but this is considered temporary.) Everyone from school districts to government buildings to your next-door neighbor are jumping on the solar bandwagon, recognizing the cost savings. But these opportunities need to expand widely to support populations left behind by the clean energy revolution.

A more practical issue is whether the U.S. will have enough of the critical materials required for an ambitious solar ramp-up, including metals like aluminum, copper, zinc, and lithium, which are used in everything from solar panel frames to transmission cables to batteries. By one estimate, the demand for minerals for clean energy purposes could exceed the supply within a decade. Moreover, production of some metals is highly concentrated geographically—for example, 90 percent of the world’s lithium comes from just three countries—which could lead to price volatility and supply disruptions. 

But even here, prospects seem reassuring. Research suggests that renewable power generation requires fewer materials than using fossil fuels, and the rising demand for certain metals and minerals would likely trigger a sharp increase in recycling. According to one study, recycling or repurposing solar panels at the end of their lifetime could unlock around 78 million tons of raw materials and other valuable components globally by 2050. There is also significant potential to use substitute metals for existing energy applications, like using aluminum to replace copper in electrical wiring.

The big wildcard

In sum, the barriers to getting to 40 percent solar aren’t economic, and they’re probably not related to the supply of materials. The big wild card is… drumroll… politics. Supportive policies will be critical in accelerating the clean energy transition (and overall decarbonization) and are necessary both to speed the deployment of technologies and reduce costs. In addition to providing incentives for clean energy, policies will have to dis-incentivize the continued use of fossil fuels (which we have been generously INcentivizing both directly and indirectly for over a century), including by putting limits on carbon emissions and building in the social cost of carbon. Without a strong mix of policies, models show that the U.S. wouldn’t be able to achieve a zero-carbon grid, instead reducing emissions only by 60 percent.

According to U.S. energy secretary Jennifer Granholm, the key decarbonization policies that the U.S. needs in order to get to 40 percent solar are “exactly what is laid out in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.” The administration has set an ambitious and, importantly, measurable goal. But, as climate activist Bill McKibben recently noted, similar efforts have been tried before. As far back as 1979, President Carter tried to advance a goal of generating 20 percent of the U.S. energy supply from solar by the year 2000. Needless to say, it didn’t work out. The Biden team’s ongoing attempts to push through key parts of its agenda show just how hard it will be to get Congress to agree on big clean energy spending—despite the clear path forward.

We have the technical know-how, we have a clear path forward, and we have public support for a clean energy transition.

The political struggle is real, and so too is the urgency. As McKibben puts it so starkly, “2050 is not that far away, and yet a lot of damage can be done by then.” Whether it’s making efforts to recycle more critical materials, ramping up solar installations, or creating more incentives for everyday Americans to embrace clean energy, we need to get moving—now. Fortunately, we can take solace in the fact that at least some things are different now than in the 1970s. We have the technical know-how, we have a clear path forward, and we have public support for a clean energy transition. And, unlike in the 70s, we also have a strong economic case: consider that in 1977, a watt of solar PV power cost $77, compared to a mere 13 cents today—a drop of 600 percent). Of course, solar alone won’t save the planet, but it’ll get us a heck of a lot closer to our clean energy future. We just need to tackle those political speed bumps.

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Stronger, Faster, Cheaper: Clean energy makes the military better

September 15, 2021

Thinking about going electric on your next vehicle purchase? So is the American military. Recently, the Army kicked the tires on an all-electric version of its Infantry Squad Vehicle, and it’s investing $50 million  over the next year on ways to get around without fossil fuel.

Beyond electric vehicles, a move to clean energy is underway across the U.S. Armed Forces, including solar installations, microgrids, and alternative fuels. Military leaders have long recognized that dependence on fossil fuels is a security risk at home and a deadly liability on the battlefield. Thousands  of casualties, for example, have been attributed to attacks on fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We also happen to have an administration that recognizes the climate crisis as a national security risk. As he took office in January, President Biden signed an executive order declaring that “climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security.”

But even back when the election of Donald Trump sent a dark cloud over the world of clean energy, the military was soldiering on with projects such as solar arrays on U.S. bases and an all-electric warship, the USS Zumwalt. After all, the Department of Defense (DoD) accounts for more than three-quarters of the entire federal government’s energy consumption, and it has a goal to reach 25% renewable energy by 2025. Judging from its most recent report on energy, the agency is a little more than halfway there.

The USS Zumwalt, the U.S. Navy’s largest and most advanced stealth destroyer.

And like the rest of us, the DoD is looking for ways to save on energy—its annual energy budget exceeds $3 billion—and be more resilient in the face of power disruptions. The department saw more utility outages lasting longer than eight hours in fiscal year 2019 compared to the year before, according to its energy management report, and outages of all lengths cost the agency more than $4 million .

Given these large bills, installing renewable energy makes both strategic and financial sense. At Fort Hood in Texas, switching to solar and wind power—which now supply about 45% of the site’s energy—saved $2.5 million in the first year alone. And DoD is testing microgrids backed up by robust batteries on a replica base at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory dubbed Fort Renewable.

Switching to solar and wind power saved Fort Hood $2.5 million in the first year alone.

So, when it comes to remaking its energy supply, DoD is working on it… but more needs to be done.

“Let’s be clear. We’re behind,” Army Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley told DefenseNews last year, referring specifically to the electric vehicle transition. “All of the various nations that we work with, they’re all going to electric power with their automotive fleet, and right now, although we do [science and technology] and we’ve got some research and development going on and we can build prototypes, in terms of a transition plan, we are not there.”

U.S. Marine Corps Corporal Robert G. Sutton (L) and Corporal Moses E. Perez, field wireman with Combat Logistics Regiment 15 install new solar panels on Combat Outpost Shukvani, Helmand province, Afghanistan, November 19, 2012. U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Alexander Quiles/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS

With hundreds  of bases operating worldwide and many tactical and security considerations, it’s not surprising that the DoD isn’t converting to clean energy at warp speed. But with an annual budget exceeding $705 billion and more than a million troops, few organizations are better positioned to push the envelope on energy. Former military energy advisers Michael Wu and Jon Powers argue the agency should, among other things, establish an Office of Energy Innovation that would focus on “electrifying the tactical edge,” which could include ships and aircraft. 

This last bit—the tough-to-electrify sectors like flight and marine transport—is where the military could really help move the world away from dirty fuels. Military innovation tends to make its way into the civilian realm. (Duct tape? Who knew!)  Yes, that includes the Humvee, which begat the gas-guzzling Hummer.

But in the future, our armed forces could be a seedbed for cleaner travel and more resilient electricity strategies that benefit all of us.

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Your home is worth more with solar

June 23, 2021

Solar panels are growing more common everywhere—on local businesses and schools, maybe even on your neighbor’s house. That’s a sure sign that the solar revolution is going mainstream. In the first three months of this year (during a pandemic no less), Americans added 905 megawatts of residential solar—up 11 percent from the same period last year, and enough energy to power nearly 172,000 homes. But adding a home solar system is still a big decision, and you might be questioning whether it’s time to take the leap. Fortunately, there’s evidence that harnessing the sun’s power isn’t just good for the climate, it’s an excellent long-term investment in your home.

The solar home premium

Research from the real estate site Zillow shows that putting solar on your roof can boost the value of your home—sometimes significantly. In a comparative study, Zillow found that homes with solar energy systems sold for 4.1 percent more on average in 2019 than comparable homes without them. This means that the median-valued home in the country ($226,300) was worth an additional $9,274 just because of those magical panels. To arrive at this number, Zillow looked at all home sales over a one-year period and identified which listings featured solar in their descriptions, while controlling for a home’s size, age, location, and market value, as well as the time of year that it sold.

Like most things in real estate, how much of a boost you’ll get from solar depends a lot on where you live. Zillow found that New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina offer the highest solar premiums, with solar-clad homes in New Jersey selling for 9.9 percent more on average than homes without solar—an added value of $32,281 (see the top 10 states with the highest solar premiums).

Zillow found that New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina offer the highest solar premiums.

Some of the hottest individual markets are coastal metro areas like New York City (where the solar premium is 5.4 percent); Orlando, Florida (where the premium is 4.5 percent, compared to 4 percent statewide); and San Francisco (a 4.4 percent premium, or a boost of $41,658 on the median-priced home of $955,200). Importantly, Zillow notes, no U.S. metropolitan area saw home values drop due to solar panels (although some states, like Utah, didn’t have enough data to be covered in the study).

So why are houses with solar energy systems selling for more than those without them?

The allure of clean energy

A key reason for the boost in home values is that more buyers are recognizing the many benefits of clean energy—particularly the energy cost savings. By installing solar, you can reduce or even eliminate your electric bills, a significant monthly expense. According to Sunrun, one of the largest U.S. residential solar companies, customers that lease solar panels see an average utility bill savings of anywhere from 10 to 40 percent. This is because the company’s solar contract offers a fixed energy price per kilowatt-hour that’s typically lower than utility rates. In general, going solar offers more predictability on your bills, letting you lock in your monthly rate, so you’re protected against future cost increases related to a volatile energy market.

If you own the solar panels outright, the savings can be even higher. Studies show that the average American solar purchaser sees a return on investment of 20 percent or more, and that most solar panel systems pay for themselves many times over the course of their (often decades-long) lifetime. Importantly, the upfront cost of the panels isn’t as daunting if you can benefit from solar rebates and tax credits. According to the clean energy marketplace EnergySage, in 2019 the average home solar system cost $18,300 before tax credits and $12,810 after tax credits.

…most solar panel systems pay for themselves many times over the course of their (often decades-long) lifetime.

People are also taking the solar leap because of personal values, seeking to live cleaner, lower-carbon lifestyles in response to the climate crisis. According to estimates, a typical residential solar panel system will eliminate three to four tons of carbon emissions each year—the equivalent of planting over 100 trees annually. “More than 80 percent of buyers now say energy-efficient features are important in selecting their home,” said Sarah Mikhitarian with Zillow. “We are increasingly finding that these attributes are important to prospective homebuyers.”

Whether to lease or own

Ultimately, whether or not going solar pays off depends on a lot of different variables, from the shape of your roof and the direct solar irradiation it gets, to the cost of electricity (and overall energy costs) in your area. Also, homes that are larger or that consume a lot of energy may see bigger savings than homes that are already pretty efficient, making the upfront cost of solar panels more worthwhile. (Check out Google’s Project Sunroof to estimate your solar savings potential based on factors like roof shape, electricity rates, local weather patterns, and more.)

It also helps to consider whether you’re planning to buy the panels outright, or to lease them from a company like Sunrun or Tesla (often, with no money down). Solar leasing offers huge benefits in that you don’t have to spend a lot upfront, unlike with a cash purchase. According to Sunrun, more than 85 percent of customers do not buy the system outright but pre-pay a set amount and then make monthly service plan payments. When you’re ready to sell the home, you’ll have the option to either buy out the lease or get the solar leasing company to help find a buyer willing to take over the lease.

By 2030, an estimated 13.4 percent of U.S. homes are expected to have a residential solar system, but the share could (and needs to) ultimately be higher. As solar enters the mainstream, having panels on your house is starting to be another calculation to make when assessing your home’s value. So the next time you think about upgrading your kitchen or finishing your basement, consider adding a new solar array to the mix. It could be one of the best investments you make in your home.

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Solar + Schools + Students = New Clean Energy Jobs

June 2, 2021

This article is from the June 2, 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).

President Biden recently set a new goal of reaching 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035. To get there, we’ll need to quadruple the current solar workforce and add 900,000 more trained workers. This ambitious goal is also an incredible opportunity and potential boost for our economy. How will we fill the gap—and do it quickly?

Training young people for jobs as solar PV installers—one of the fastest growing occupations—is one way. 

In New York City, the school district has developed an innovative solar education program that gets students excited about clean energy early on through K-12 classroom lessons and then offers a pathway to get solar job training, certification, and first-hand experience while in high school. The NYC Solar Schools Education Program, a partnership between the NYC Department of Education and Solar One (a local nonprofit energy and sustainability education organization), offers hands-on, solar installation training to students at 13 high schools. The program comes full circle by organizing student internships with solar companies, giving students an opportunity to put their solar skills to work to power more NYC schools with solar. 

A diagram of NYC’s Solar Education Program in action


Interview with a future clean energy professional

Thanks to the NYC Solar Schools Education Program, college student Stephanie Sosa got a jumpstart into her clean energy career while she was still in high school. She participated in Solar One’s virtual summer course as a high-school senior during the pandemic in June of 2020 and earned her NABCEP Solar PV Associate credential. With that training and experience as a foundation, she has decided to pursue a degree in electrical engineering at the NYC College of Technology to prepare for a career in clean energy. 

Here is our interview with her, edited for length and clarity. Enjoy!

Stephanie Sosa

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Generation180: What sparked your interest in solar and clean energy? 

Stephanie Sosa: Ever since I was a little kid, my parents taught me to consider the earth a gift, because this is our home. I try my best to take care of it. In high school science class, we talked about ways we harm the earth, and the ways we can fulfill our human needs and wants. Solar and clean energy are the best way to fulfill our present needs without harming the earth and the ability of future generations to meet their needs. So, when I heard about Solar One’s virtual solar training for students, I applied right away. 

Generation180: What were some of your highlights of the solar program?

Stephanie Sosa: I was very impressed by how knowledgeable the instructor was. All of the modules were rich in useful information (like PV system sizing), pacing was excellent, and he would go out of his way to research an answer to a question if he didn’t immediately know the answer. I enjoyed learning terms that were new to me, or that I was using wrong. For example, it’s actually solar cells that make up solar modules, which make up solar panels that comprise solar arrays!

Even with the course being in a fully-virtual environment, there were many ways to engage in discussion with other students, ask questions that lead into tangential conversation, and collaborate to enrich our learning. 

Generation180: Did the high school solar program have an impact on your future career plans?

Stephanie Sosa: In high school, I discovered many things about myself. A passion for clean energy was one of them.

Specifically, during my junior year, we had someone from Solar One visit my class. He introduced me to solar and engaged my whole class through interactive, hands-on learning activities with solar cell modules that were really fun. From then on, I continued learning about the electrical trade, but I didn’t know how I would work within it. His lessons and role made me aware that solar was a growing field I could become a part of.

Immediately after completing the virtual course, we were given a book that we could study for the PV associate exam. I jumped at this opportunity to continue my learning and solar expertise. I studied, took the exam, and passed! So now I have my NABCEP PV Associate credential.

In high school, I discovered many things about myself. A passion for clean energy was one of them.


Generation180: Do you intend to join the clean energy field now that you have completed the solar training program?

Stephanie Sosa: I’m not currently in the solar industry, but it’s where I’d like to end up. I’m finishing my first year of college at the NYC College of Technology in Brooklyn, pursuing a degree in electrical engineering technology. By furthering my studies, I hope to use this knowledge to excel in the solar industry in the future.  

Generation180: Do you have any advice for your generation and/or those interested in getting involved in clean energy?

Stephanie Sosa: Take advantage of every opportunity that you can to learn and immerse yourself in the field, whatever that might be. At first, I had never considered clean energy as a career pathway for myself. Luckily, I was introduced to the multitude of options to work in the world of clean energy and solar, thanks to the Solar One program.

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Interested in learning more about the NYC DOE Office of Sustainability and Solar One’s work? Check out our case study on the program, and if you know a student in the NYC area, share this blog with them and encourage them to get involved!

Blog

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.

Thor
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.

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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.