Columnist Johanna Neumann: Our solar future
Published: 9/26/2021 8:10:36 AM
Climate change was central to President Joe Biden when he addressed the United Nations last week. He knows, as so many know, that tackling this existential threat requires a commitment to clean energy.
Recently, the Department of Energy released a new report titled “Solar Futures”. The study shows that solar energy has the potential to power 40% of the country’s electricity by 2035. A reporter asked me how feasible that was. My answer was “very”. This is why.
Solar energy is incredibly abundant. Across America, the sun shines on our rooftops, parking lots, fields and forests. This free unlimited source of energy comes to every American community every day. To utilize this energy, we only need to install solar collectors including solar rays. The restrictions are not technical. In fact, using today’s technology, America could recapture itself 75 times from the sun. So the 40% solar ambition that the Department of Energy sets out in its new report is really doable.
Solar energy is growing. Thanks in part to supportive policies, solar energy adoption has skyrocketed over the past decade. In 2010, less than a tenth of 1% of U.S. energy came from solar energy. In 2019 that was almost 3%. To get to 40% in the next 14 years, solar will have to grow in a significant way, and luckily the industry is positioned to do that.
As the adoption of solar energy has increased, the cost of using solar energy has fallen sharply and the technology has gotten better. The cost of solar on utilities has fallen by 90% in the last ten years and solar on the roof by 60%. And widespread deployment has led to technological improvements. Solar panels being installed today are: 37% more efficient in converting the sun’s rays into electricity than 10 years ago.
At the same time that America is installing solar panels, we are also making homes and businesses more energy efficient. Energy efficiency is already saving Americans energy and combined with electrification, America could halve its energy consumption by 2050. Using less energy in general makes it much easier to get more of the energy we need from renewable sources like the sun.
To grow solar energy, we need a steady hand on the tiller. Providing 40% of our country with clean renewable solar energy within 14 years does not require drastic policy changes, but it requires a long-term commitment to renewable energy at the national, state and local levels.
The federal government should expand and expand federal clean energy tax credits for solar and other renewable technologies. Recently, the Ways & Means committee, chaired by Richard Neal, Western Massachusetts’ own representative, included ten-year extensions of clean energy tax incentives in the bill that sends its committee to the House. For solar energy to grow in America, the House must approve these measures and so must the Senate.
In Massachusetts, lawmakers would 100% clean deed. This legislation puts Massachusetts on the path to 100% clean electricity by 2035 and 100% clean heating and transportation by 2045 – and solar will play a key role in meeting these goals. The bill sets clear goals and provides measurable benchmarks for the commonwealth to move to clean energy to power our electrical system, heat our homes and travel around.
Additional government measures may include promoting solar energy, requiring every new home and commercial building to be built with rooftop solar panels and maintaining strong national interconnection, grid metering and virtual grid metering policies that take into account the true value that solar on the roof provides the grid .
Cities and towns can lead to the adoption of solar energy. In Massachusetts, municipalities can help move our state toward a million solar roofs by 2030. There are many ways that communities can get solar energy. Examples are the installation of solar panels on landfills, but also the roofs of public buildings such as the secondary school, the town hall or the library. Cities can also partner with local business owners to install solar canopies over their parking lots and help families sign up to participate in community solar programs. Every solar panel installed in our neighborhoods is one step closer to a future powered by clean, renewable energy. And when enough cities and towns go on board with solar power, it really starts to add up.
The next 14 years have the potential to take solar power from arguably the most popular form of energy to one of the most widely used. A range of policy measures – especially modernized and expanded incentives – are needed to drive that progress. The sooner we commit to that progress, the sooner we will all reap the benefits of cleaner air, cleaner water and a chance for a livable climate for future generations.
Johanna Neumann, from Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and promote a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at [email protected]