Blessed with a flat roof with a broad southerly orientation, my late mother’s house on Long Island, where I (mostly) live, is a prime candidate for solar energy. But three years ago, when she was still alive, we concluded that it was still too pricey – about $30,000 for a modest system.
Renewable Costs Plummeting As Technology Advances
A lot has changed since then.
If a homeowner wants to own a solar system outright, it’s never been cheaper – and the trajectory of costs is only going down. But the real change is that solar is now affordable for any homeowner. Now in New York state, you can get a solar lease with no money down, pay less per month for the leasing fee (at a fixed rate for 20 years) than your current electric bill, and help the planet to boost. Or you can pay some upfront cost and get a hefty reimbursement from a tax credit and pay even less for the monthly leasing fee.
Just a few years ago, common wisdom was that the transition to renewable energy would be long and hard; the usual prediction was that renewables wouldn’t make it out of the single digits as a percentage of total energy production, due to technology issues.
But, funny thing about technology -- it just keeps on advancing (even in the U.S., despite the huge barriers put in its way by recalcitrant politicians at the behest of the dirty energy lobby.) Just announced: engineers at the University of South Wales have found a way of correcting impurities in silicon that will make solar panels much cheaper. From new inverters and new solar cell coatings to new solar collectors and a host of other new technologies, we’re seeing the start of a new gee-whiz stage of solar energy innovation.
Long Island: 100% Renewable Energy Possible At Current Technology Level
But going from concept prototype to commercial scaling up entails a long road littered with the debris of broken dreams and investment failures. Do we actually have the Right Stuff right now to make it to 100 percent renewable energy within a decade or less?
Yes, say a growing chorus of cities, regions and countries.
One voice is right on Long Island: the office of Renewable Energy Long Island (ReLI). The nonprofit commissioned energy consultant firm Synapse Energy Economics to evaluate the prospects for going 100 percent renewable on Long Island. The resulting report, issued in the Fall of 2012, found that the region could supply 100 percent of residential electric power needs by 2020 and 100 percent of all electric power needs by 2030.
The Long Island Clean Electricity Vision used current commercially-available technology and conservative estimates for cost parity with fossil fuels to arrive at its conclusions. It also assumed that in periods when solar and wind fell short in supplying demand, conventional sources would be used with carbon offsets.
The cost of implementation would be modest, with a typical increase to a monthly electric bill in the order of $12 to $18. (I imagine, given the conservative stance taken by the report and rapidly decreasing renewable costs, this estimate would likely actually be lower.)
Renewables Have Reached Parity With Coal
In the U.S. as a whole, wind energy has already reached parity with coal, while in Australia, wind is cheaper than coal-powered electricity. Solar power achieved grid parity in India, Italy and Spain this year and is closing in on the same goal in the near future elsewhere. And here’s something to consider: Spain and Italy have been wracked by severe economic troubles, so their ability to reach solar parity with coal utterly puts the lie to the claim that recessionary pressures preclude clean energy development.
It’s important to note that the ReLI report did not factor in the enormous – and increasing – real costs of fossil fuels. Those costs are running up a huge tab of environmental debt, expressed in the destruction of human and natural capital, as well as mounting financial costs. However, it did factor in the strong likelihood that the U.S. would regulate carbon emissions. New York has already put a modest price on carbon through its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI.)
A Global Trend for 100% Renewable Scenarios
I sat down with ReLI’s Director Gordian Raacke recently in his office, housed ironically, in a building owned by a local fuel oil company. (The company must be seeing the renewable light on the horizon, however, because it has added a solar installation service to its offerings.) He views the Clean Electricity Vision report’s conclusions as part of a growing global trend:
"We think here at Renewable Energy Long Island not only that this is possible now but we also know that many other parts of the world are looking at 100 percent renewable energy scenarios. Some of them have already begun to implement that and there are whole regions in other parts of the world that already produce 100 percent of their electrical power --and in some cases 100 percent of their total energy needs -- from renewable sources"
He adds that the economic benefits go way beyond the generation of clean electricity:
"This is a great opportunity not only to meet our energy needs in a responsible way but also to create jobs and keep more of our money in the local economy. It's a win-win situation. We have a way to solve the climate crisis but at the same time we have a way to solve the economic crisis by switching from conventional fossil and nuclear fuels to renewables."
Raacke also thinks the right public policy could move the needle toward renewables even faster. Originally from Germany, he recently came back from a tour of renewable energy sites and installations in that country. (He even showed me a “solar power” travel guide.) Germany has managed to achieve an astonishing record, according to Raacke: renewables supply roughly a quarter of electricity demand, with solar power sometimes supplying 40 percent of peak consumption.
Raacke pointed out that a critical element in this success has been Germany’s use of feed-in tariffs to boost adoption of solar by the population. The photovoltaic array on his own house, for example, supplies more electricity on a yearly basis than he uses; he sells the excess back to the utility, LIPA, at a steeply discounted rate. (When the sun shines, his meter runs backward; at night, he draws power from the utility; it’s called net-energy metering.)
But in Germany, the feed-in tariff guarantees a market-based price for the power sold to the utility. That’s a powerful incentive for homeowners and businesses to go solar.
San Francisco’s plan for 100 percent renewable power generation by 2025 recommends feed-in tariffs, along with a host of other carefully detailed suggestions for making the transition to renewables, including how to bring banks and investors on board. It’s fascinating reading.
"We are dumping 90 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every day. We know we can do this very differently. We have all the technical solutions, we have the know-how, we have the financial means to do it. What’s lacking is the social and political will to switch from an energy economy that’s based on dirty and dangerous fossil fuels to clean renewable energy. It’s really easy to do it and it’s a great opportunity to re-tool our economy."
Luckily, it’s an opportunity that is getting more feasible by the day.