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Future Forecast: Sun, Sun, Sun

Posted by Paul Hawken, Guest Columnist

Aug 14, 2017 11:29:52 AM

Rooftop solar is well on its way to becoming the cleanest, cheapest and most convenient energy source ever.

Note: This article is taken from Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, which describes the 100 most substantive solutions to climate change, as well as their financial histories, the carbon impacts they provide, the relative cost and savings and each solution’s path to adoption.

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When American inventor Charles Fritts built the world’s first solar array—shown here atop a New York City building in 1884—he could only dream of the era he was ushering in.

The year was 1884, when the first solar array appeared on a rooftop in New York City. Experimentalist Charles Fritts installed it after discovering that a thin layer of selenium on a metal plate could produce a current of electricity when exposed to light. How light could turn on lights, he and his solar-pioneering contemporaries did not know, for the mechanics were not understood until the early 20th century when, among other breakthroughs, Albert Einstein published his revolutionary work on what are now called photons. Though the scientific establishment of Fritts’s day believed power generation depended on heat, Fritts was convinced that “photoelectric” modules would wind up competing with coal-fired power plants. The first such plant had been brought online by Thomas Edison just two years earlier, also in New York City.

Today, solar is replacing electricity generated from coal as well as from natural gas. It is replacing kerosene lamps and diesel generators in places where people lack access to the power grid, true for more than a billion people around the world. While society grapples with electricity’s pollution in some places and its absence in others, the mysterious waves and particles of the sun’s light continuously strike the surface of the planet with an energy more than 10,000 times the world’s total use. Small-scale photovoltaic systems, typically sited on rooftops, are playing a significant role in harnessing that light, the most abundant resource on Earth. When photons strike the thin wafers of silicon crystal within a vacuum-sealed solar panel, they knock electrons loose and produce an electrical circuit. These subatomic particles are the only moving parts in a solar panel, which requires no fuel.

While solar photovoltaics (PV) provide less than 2 percent of the world’s electricity at present, PV has seen exponential growth over the past decade. In 2015, distributed systems of less than 100 kilowatts accounted for roughly 30 percent of solar PV capacity installed worldwide. In Germany, one of the world’s solar leaders, the majority of photovoltaic capacity is on rooftops, which don 1.5 million systems. In Bangladesh, population 157 million, more than 3.6 million home solar systems have been installed. Fully 16 percent of Australian homes have them. Transforming a square meter of rooftop into a miniature power station is proving irresistible.


"The first rule of sustainability is to align with natural forces, or at least not try to defy them."—Paul Hawken. Image credit: Terrance McCarthy 

Roof modules are spreading around the world because of their affordability. Solar PV has benefited from a virtuous cycle of falling costs, driven by incentives to accelerate its development and implementation, economies of scale in manufacturing, advances in panel technology, and innovative approaches for end-user financing—such as the third-party ownership arrangements that have helped mainstream solar in the United States. As demand has grown and production has risen to meet it, prices have dropped; as prices have dropped, demand has grown further. A PV manufacturing boom in China has helped unleash a torrent of inexpensive panels around the world. But hard costs are only one side of the expense equation. The soft costs of financing, acquisition, permitting and installation can be half the cost of a rooftop system and have not seen the same dip as panels, themselves. That is part of the reason rooftop solar is more expensive than its utility-scale kin. Nonetheless, small-scale PV already generates electricity more cheaply than it can be brought from the grid in some parts of the United States, in many small island states, and in countries including Australia, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Spain.

The advantages of rooftop solar extend far beyond price. While the production of PV panels, like any manufacturing process, involves emissions, they generate electricity without emitting greenhouse gases or air pollution—with the infinite resource of sunlight as their sole input. When placed on a grid-connected roof, they produce energy at the site of consumption, avoiding the inevitable losses of grid transmission. They can help utilities meet broader demand by feeding unused electricity into the grid, especially in summer, when solar is humming and electricity needs run high. This “net metering” arrangement, selling excess electricity back to the grid, can make solar panels financially feasible for homeowners, offsetting the electricity they buy at night or when the sun is not shining.

Numerous studies show that the financial benefit of rooftop PV runs both ways. By having it as part of an energy-generation portfolio, utilities can avoid the capital costs of additional coal or gas plants, for which their customers would otherwise have to pay, and broader society is spared the environmental and public health impacts. Added PV supply at times of highest electricity demand can also curb the use of expensive and polluting peak generators. Some utilities reject this proposition and posit contradictory claims of rooftop PV being a “free rider,” as they aim to block the rise of distributed solar and its impact on their revenue and profitability. Others accept its inevitability and are trying to shift their business models accordingly. For all involved, the need for a grid “commons” continues, so utilities, regulators and stakeholders of all stripes are evolving approaches to cover that cost.

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The decreasing cost of photovoltaic power has delivered solar energy to everywhere in the world, including poorer nations like Peru.

Off the grid, rooftop panels can bring electricity to rural parts of low-income countries. Just as mobile phones leapfrogged installation of landlines and made communication more democratic, solar systems eliminate the need for large-scale, centralized power grids. High-income countries dominated investment in distributed solar until 2014, but now countries such as Chile, China, India and South Africa have joined in. It means rooftop PV is accelerating access to affordable, clean electricity and thereby becoming a powerful tool for eliminating poverty. It is also creating jobs and energizing local economies. In Bangladesh alone, those 3.6 million home solar systems have generated 115,000 direct jobs and 50,000 more downstream.

Since the late 19th century, human beings in many places have relied on centralized plants that burn fossil fuels and send electricity out to a system of cables, towers and poles. As households adopt rooftop solar (increasingly accompanied and enabled by distributed energy storage), they transform generation and its ownership, shifting away from utility monopolies and making power production their own. As electric vehicles also spread, “gassing up” can be done at home, supplanting oil companies. With producer and user as one, energy gets democratized. Charles Fritts had this vision in the 1880s, as he looked out over the roofscape of New York City. Today, that vision is increasingly coming to fruition.

Impact: Our analysis assumes rooftop solar PV can grow from 0.4 percent of electricity generation globally to 7 percent by 2050. That growth can avoid 24.6 gigatons of emissions. We assume an implementation cost of $1,883 per kilowatt, dropping to $627 per kilowatt by 2050. Over three decades, the technology could save $3.4 trillion in home energy costs. 

Paul Hawken is executive director of Project Drawdown, a coalition of researchers, scientists, graduate students, policy makers, business leaders and activists who assemble and present the best available information on climate solutions and their beneficial financial, social and environmental impact over the next 30 years. He is also editor of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. He may be contacted at paulhawken@drawdown.org


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