Editor’s Note: SILC is pleased to publish the following editorial piece by Justin Michelson, a recent graduate of Providence College. We strongly support the emphasis that educational institutions have been placing on the sustainability sector, and we encourage students and recent graduates to contribute their time, their energy, their enthusiasm, and their knowledge to sustainable endeavors.
Have you been hearing mentions of the rapidly expanding international solar energy market but are unsure of what is going on here in the States? Well, even though our country isn’t the leader in terms of global production, there are plenty of opportunities to both learn about and grow our solar supply through the use of efficient and cost-effective solar installations. While this would be a massive step in the right direction, after the U.S. has founded its nation’s infrastructure with fossil fuels that impact the environment and public health, it is important to understand the history as well as the pros and cons to such a fast-moving industry.
To put things into perspective, the solar industry employs more than 370,000 people within the U.S. This, compared to just about 187,000 in both coal, oil, and gas industries combined, proves that solar is the future front runner in energy jobs. With a growing industry that is able to brag over an average of 50% annual growth over the last 10 years, companies and cities have thus naturally begun adopting incentive programs to lower costs. While topping at over $76 per watt in 1977, today that average cost is less than $0.36. These falling costs have enabled over 64 GW of solar capacity to be installed as of 2018; enough to power over 12 million homes. This drastically shrinking price is an incredible opportunity for the U.S. to take hold of as only 1% of our energy is produced by solar currently. With increased production and improved efficiencies, this can be an enormous success in our nation’s energy security while simultaneously keeping Americans’ wallets happy.
Ultimately the largest impact on solar installations will come from corporations and other institutions when they both understand the financial opportunities it brings, and the examples they can set for their fellow investors and citizens. Green businesses drive tremendous profits, and the change needed in business platforms will not only provide a renewed sense of purpose to environmental stewardship, but also create tremendous efficiencies and cost reductions to their business models. Whether it’s a retail giant like Target that has added more than 200 MW in well over 400 stores, or ironically the small Kentucky Coal Museum which has switched to solar power in order to save nearly $10,000 off their electricity bills annually, solar is for anyone no matter their size or purpose.
With this said, traditional businesses are not the only ones who can benefit from such an economic design. Although sometimes viewed as profit oriented and slow to change, the nation’s higher educational institutions are starting a smart, economically pleasing, and green revolutions of their own. As of 2017, over 153 higher educational institutions across the country have implemented solar canopy projects, creating enough energy equivalent to powering 370,000 homes. To demonstrate the successes even further, it is beneficial to look at the work that the University of Massachusetts Amherst completed in 2015. Through a $146,000 Leading by Example Clean Energy grant from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resource, the school installed 3 large solar parking canopies at its Robsham Memorial Center for Visitors. The carports are practical in their design, aesthetically pleasing, providing shading and protection from the elements for cars and its passengers, and are able to efficiently collect sunlight to provide an alternative energy source to benefit the school. Overall, the canopies produce 330,000 kWh annually, and are expected to save UMass over $160,000 a year. Due to this success and positive remarks regarding this project, the school has carried out additional solar developments in other parking lots and on academic buildings. This university is just one of hundreds of case studies showing the financial and environmental benefits to such a system. If others are doing it, there are clear economic and social benefits to such a project aside from the obvious environmental initiatives.
Even with large incentive and subsidy programs, it is important to understand that a solar installation is nothing to yawn at. The amount of capital, planning, and time most of these projects take is substantial, and certainly isn’t meant for all types of situations. Aside from needing a significant amount of funds reserved, it is important to understand that solar is an intermittent energy source. Not only due to the obvious realization that the energy is only generated when the sun is out during the day, there are still other factors that determine the cells’ success such as the time of year, amount of cloud cover, and even the angle at which the panels are set at. Additionally, once the energy is created, it essentially needs to be used immediately due to the high costs in current energy storage systems. While serious users could buy storage systems such as the Tesla Powerwall home solar battery, there is a strong correlation between our daily energy demands and solar energy production meaning that these systems could be important but aren’t essential. Regardless, careful consideration and research should be done before completing such a project in order to ensure the most practical investment and design.
This trend can not only make a cleaner nation, but one that improves peoples’ lives. While the fossil fuel industry has been the backbone of the United States for a significant portion of its history, it is important to look at the complete picture. A leader of clean and affordable energy not only keeps Americans healthy, but also financially secure. An individual doesn’t need to be a “tree-hugging” environmentalist to think about switching to solar: the wide-ranging benefits are clear for all involved. Cities all across the nation have already begun programs to switch to solar, and a national compliance both in corporate and residential projects could bring this revolution to the next level. Sometimes change is daunting, however this most certainly can improve the way we live forever.
EPA Green Power Partnership. (2016, September 26). Solar Carports: Turning University Parking Facilities into Renewable Electricity Plants. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-09/documents/gppwebinar-9-26-17_kent.pdf.
Frangoul, A. (2018, May 28). 10 massive corporations going big on solar power. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/28/10-massive-corporations-going-big-on-solar-power.html.
Learn Live Lead: Sustainable UMASS. (n.d.). Robsham Visitor Center Solar Canopies. Retrieved from https://www.umass.edu/sustainability/robsham-visitor-center-solar-canopies.
McCarthy, N. (2017, January 26). Solar Employs More People In U.S. Electricity Generation Than Oil, Coal And Gas Combined. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2017/01/25/u-s-solar-energy-employs-more-people-than-oil-coal-and-gas-combined-infographic/#374fdb422800.
Parton, S. (n.d.). Solar Energy May Have Found Its Profitable Breakthrough ... Retrieved from https://www.curiousapes.com/solar-energy-might-have-found-its-profitable-breakthrough.
Solar Energy Industries Association. (n.d.). Solar Industry Research Data. Retrieved from https://www.seia.org/solar-industry-research-data.
Watkins, M. (2017, April 08). Kentucky Coal Museum shifts to solar power. Retrieved from https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/science/environment/2017/04/07/kentucky-coal-museum-shifts-solar-power/100137898.
About The Author
A recent Economics major graduating from Providence College, Justin Michelson developed a strong passion for sustainability issues while studying abroad in Copenhagen Denmark. He has focused his studies and recent work on urban planning and development, environmental concerns, and leading sustainability issues. While attending Providence College, Justin researched and presented an independent study project investigating the financial benefits of the installation of solar canopies and electric charging ports on campus. Most recently, Justin works for 'A Better City', an organization focused on advancing Boston's economic, sustainability, and quality of life. Justin is passionate about the environment and its people and is committed to advancing impactful green projects that can truly make a difference.