In April 2021, the Biden administration implemented a new Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Target. This plan aims for a 50–52% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution by 2030 from 2005 levels. The United States also set a goal of completely divesting from carbon-emitting electricity sources by 2035. To some, these goals may appear too ambitious. To many climate activists, these goals are not ambitious enough. Regardless, the U.S. faces a steep road ahead if it plans to drastically reduce its carbon output.
In 2020, renewable energy accounted for only 12% of U.S. energy consumption—this includes energy sourced from solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass. To visualize, the U.S. Energy Information Administration constructed the following graph to demonstrate where the majority of U.S. energy consumption came from during that year:
This 12% renewable energy total roughly doubles its levels from 2005, when Americans sourced only 6.21% of their energy from renewables. Yet, a 6% consumption increase over the course of 15 years hardly yields an optimistic outlook towards Biden’s new energy goals. As the fossil fuel industry also remains closely intertwined with the U.S. government through subsidies, tax breaks, and massive lobbying efforts, the idea of a quick and efficient energy transition still feels distant and obscured. With that said, the U.S. will need to rely more heavily on renewables to bridge the gap between its energy consumption and new goals.
One formidable solution derives its power from that fiery orb that we all know and love: the sun. Solar energy is a renewable resource with conventional origins in 1954 America, when scientists Daryl Chaplin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson first developed photovoltaic (PV) cell technology. In the past few decades, solar has become one of the world’s most prominent forms of renewable energy. And, as solar technology becomes more accessible, the price of PV system installation and solar energy consumption continue to drop. The exact statistics regarding current solar installation costs are contested: the Solar Energy Industries Association states new solar installation costs are as low as $1.25/watt, whereas EnergySage places the average price closer to $2.76/watt. Compared to 2011, however, when the U.S. Department of Energy reported small-scale solar installations to cost $6.13/watt, both estimates remain encouraging.
To capitalize on the decreasing cost of solar energy, the U.S. must devise innovative ways to implement new PV systems across the country––projects that necessarily come in different sizes. Large utility-scale solar projects can supply thousands of households, businesses, and offices with renewable energy all from the same development. As these larger projects require more open space, however, they can be logistically difficult to develop near major cities, signalling a need for alternatives.
Small-scale solar projects come in many forms. Most often, these types of projects provide individual households or buildings with direct energy due to their rooftop or nearby placement. Small-scale solar frequently decreases energy over-production because developers can assess household or building energy usage prior to PV implementation. Personalized solar developments also help to cut down on energy costs because consumers pay less for excess.
To continue working towards Biden’s new GHG reduction goals, American cities are beginning to look more actively into novel forms of community-based PV systems that can benefit households and community buildings that may not be able to support solar installation. Luckily, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a center dedicated to researching and developing strategies for renewable energy technology and efficiency, compiled a report focused on community solar models. The report lists three primary model types: Utility-Sponsored, Special Purpose Entity (SPE), and Nonprofit. The following NREL graphic illustrates the differences between the three models:
Though these models all contribute to the transition to clean energy, each one offers different incentives—or as they are referred to here, motives—through which individuals can improve their own energy usage. Utility models are typically the larger models that reside outside major cities owing to their size. As such, the SPE and nonprofit models are more relevant here.
Looking first towards the SPE models, one example, University Park Community Solar (UPCS), LLC, provides 22.77kW of solar energy to its community in University Park, Maryland. Financed by 35 individuals, UPCS partnered with Standard Solar to install American-made solar panels atop a local church. Providing electricity primarily to the church, the solar project generates 25% excess energy, which is then sold to community members who buy electricity through their local utility service. There is no additional cost for this solar energy; UPCS sells it at market rate. And, since its 2010 installation, the solar project has already covered over two-thirds of its initial development price through saved costs. Many University Park community members are now modeling new solar projects off of UPCS’s model, indicating their excitement for improved return on investment and ethical energy consumption.
Nonprofit community solar models, like the Solar for Sakai project, are equally inspiring, if not more so. In Bainbridge Island, Washington, community members and a grant from the Puget Sound Energy’s Solar for Schools Program financed the development of the 5.1kW Solar for Sakai project. Located at the Sakai Intermediate School, this project generates the electricity needed by the school to operate on a daily basis. Thanks to the money saved by using locally-sourced solar, the school’s administration has been able to reinvest the savings into educational improvements and resources. Further, teachers can now more effectively teach their students about the science behind solar and other renewable energy sources because of their proximity to an actual project. This reinvestment is then not solely financial. It is an investment in the future of the country, as it encourages students to consider environmental protection measures from a young age.
Both of these community-based solar examples elucidate the benefits of a divestment from conventional energy sources. There are countless other innovative solar solutions that scientists continue to devise, including parking lot solar projects that charge electric vehicles and highway-side solar that utilizes empty space. In order to improve upon America’s polluted history, and to thereby engage in the country’s commitment to climate change mitigation worldwide, the U.S. must keep developing new, efficient methods of using the environment’s renewable resources to power American communities.
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