Solar energy is still a largely untapped resource in the United States. While the past decade has seen a massive increase in solar in both the US and across the world, fossil fuel interests still hold an iron grip on much of the energy market. The benefits of solar energy have been downplayed by many pundits promoting the fossil fuel status quo – they complain about the cost of solar energy and say the industry can’t stand on its own feet without subsidies, and yet skip over two important points: The first is that the cost of solar is decreasing rapidly, and the second is that the fossil fuel industry is heavily subsidized as well.
Government subsidies at the federal, state, and local levels support both the renewable and non-renewable energy industry. Despite an EU agreement in 2009 to begin phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, the industry continues to receive massive amounts of government support. In the G20 countries, for example, there were a combined $452 billion of subsidies given to support fossil fuel producers, while global support for renewables in the same time period stood at $121 billion.
Among renewables, solar has taken the spotlight, seeing massive growth in the past decade. While there are a lot of academic arguments around why we should focus on adopting solar as a society, one the biggest advantage of solar power is that sun isn’t going anywhere for billions of years. Fossil fuels will run out. When you figure in the long-term prognosis of both solar energy and fossil fuels, including the self-sufficiency that home solar panels will provide, the choice becomes clearer. In many cases, power companies wind up paying their customers who’s solar generates excess power. Also, solar systems paired with battery storage can store the power they generate on-site for use during outages or at night to reduce their consumption profile further. Homeowners also then have the option to live “off the grid” and still have reliable power, or to receive compensation from utilities for feeding power back into the grid.
The cost of solar for homeowners varies greatly throughout the United States. There are different laws, sharing agreements, and regulations with which solar customers must contend. In June in California, for instance, homeowners still paid more for their electricity than did customers in Arizona, in part because California shipped its excess solar power to Arizona for free and continued generating power within its own borders using natural gas plants.
The problem in California is that there is no central authority that controls all aspects of power generation, which leads to a scenario with too many cooks in the kitchen. For example, the California legislature underestimated the amount of solar power that California can generate. The original goal was for 50 percent of generated power to come from solar by 2030. They’re already years ahead of schedule and are considering legislation to drive that number to 100%. State regulators, however, are still giving the go-ahead to more natural gas plants as the legislature wants more solar, and as a result are creating inevitable overlap in the energy supply.
The State of New York is putting solar energy on its front burner, so to speak. The largest solar-power generating station in the Northeast is located in the woods of Long Island. It cranks out 32 mW of power from more than 160,000 panels. If we do the math, assuming an average of six hours of production a day and an average usage of six kWh per day per house, this plant will provide enough power for 4,500 homes in one year. The Long Island Solar Farm is only one part of the massive restructuring of New York’s power grid, with the governor promising an increase in spending of nearly 300 percent to bring solar into the mainstream.
Recently, there has been much brouhaha about the current administration’s new tariff on solar panels. The tariff will hurt, but it will not hurt as much for the “little guy” the way it will for commercial interests. Overall, most estimates indicate that the cost of home solar systems will go up by roughly 4 percent, which is negligible next to the savings a homeowner can generate by making and storing power. Also, the new tariff will drop by 5% annually over the next four years.
In the U.S., average solar panel cost varies widely, depending on the area. With the wide availability of solar loans, leases and PPAs, homeowners spread the costs out over the long haul, and the savings from the panels will more than offset their installation cost within only a few years. For a more in-depth working out of the associated costs of solar, see this report.
All in all, the future belongs to cleaner energy, which is renewable. Fossil fuels are going to go the way of the dodo, and to compete in a world that is rapidly shifting to renewables, the US will have to follow suit.