At the beginning of this summer, after getting home from eight months abroad and before moving to New York City, I spent the majority of my days preparing my house and yard for the solar array that was soon to be installed. Due to regulations regarding how much weight your roof can bear, we installed twenty panels on my garage roof and a large array of 45 in my front yard. It was the focal point of the spring for my parents. They were going to be replacing their monthly energy bill with a smaller loan payment for the panels, which will be paid off in around eight years. This would allow them to become completely energy independent, and more than likely be paid by their energy company for the excess electricity they provide back the grid, wholesale. Once we had the panels online, we began making almost four times the amount of electricity that we were using.
Although using solar energy to power your house is great, it’s still only a minor step towards sustainability when one contemplates America’s total energy consumption. In 2016, utility scale solar power generated 29.5 Terra watt-hours. That is 1092592.6 times the annual output of our house’s 27,000 KWh. Although that number seems high, it only represents a meager 0.73% of Americas total energy output of 4,297 TWh. With countries like Costa Rica and Denmark sustaining weeks and months at a time on 100% renewable energy, it shows just how far behind the curve America is in regards to sustainability.
Despite what it may look like, these figures shouldn’t be taken as bad news. America has come a very long way. Installing solar power at my house would have been out of the question ten years ago. Even with tax incentives, the price of solar panels compared to their efficiency made it not worth the investment. Luckily, the current trajectory of solar panel efficiency is rising as the price is falling, and the proof can be seen in most suburban towns in America. You can’t drive down the street in my neighborhood anymore without seeing multiple houses running off solar.
In the decade between 2004 and 2014, solar power made massive strides. The number of homes with photovoltaic installations went from 15,500 to 600,000. The number of utility-scale solar projects went from 100 to 1100, and their total energy output increased from 365 MW to 11,440 MW. What’s more, during these 10 years, the average price of a photovoltaic installation decreased by 60 percent and utility scale operations dropped by 73 percent. Bear in mind, this data is two years old. The numbers have continued to climb as solar technology moves forward. For example, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla (which is currently in the process of acquiring SolarCity for $2.6 Billion), has recently announced new solar roof technology, intended to replace modules placed on a roof with solar panel “shingles.” These are the types of innovations that we need to revolutionize how our country achieves its energy needs.
Overall, there is no doubt that solar power is the future. We are lucky enough to have a nearly infinite source of energy that is the power source for all life on earth. As a species, we must embrace the next step in our evolution, rid ourselves of this self-destructive dependence on fossil fuel and natural gas, and proceed into the future in a sustainable way. Without photosynthesis, most plants would wilt and die. If we don’t figure out a way to sustainably utilize the sun’s energy, we may end up that way as well.
By Clayton Curran