Columnist Johanna Neumann: Our solar future

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Published: 10/3/2021 5:59:09 PM

Climate change was front-and-center for President Joe Biden when he addressed the United Nations last week. He knows, like so many knows, that to address this existential threat requires a commitment to clean energy.

Recently, the Department of Energy came out with a new report entitled “Solar Futures.” The study shows that by 2035, solar energy has the potential to power 40% of the nation’s electricity. A reporter asked me how feasible that was. My answer was “very.” Here’s why.

Solar energy is incredibly abundant. Across America, the sun shines on our roofs, parking lots, fields and forests. This free limitless energy source comes to every American community every day. To harness this energy, we just need to put solar collectors under more of the sun’s rays. The constraints are not technical. In fact, using today’s technology, America could repower itself 75 times over from the sun. So the 40% solar ambition that the Department of Energy lays out in its new report is really very doable.

Solar is growing. Thanks in part to supportive policies, over the past decade solar adoption has skyrocketed. In 2010, less than one-tenth of 1% of America’s energy came from solar. In 2019, it was almost 3%. Getting up to 40% over the next 14 years will require solar to grow in a major way, and, thankfully, the industry is positioned to do that.

As solar adoption has grown, the costs of going solar have plummeted and the technology has gotten better. Utility scale solar costs have come down 90% and rooftop solar 60% over the past decade. And widespread deployment has led to technological improvements. Solar panels being installed today are 37% more efficient at converting the sun’s rays to electricity than they were 10 years ago.

At the same time that America is deploying solar panels, we’re also making homes and businesses more energy efficient. Energy efficiency is already saving Americans energy and coupled with electrification, America can cut its energy use in half by 2050. Using less energy overall will make it that much easier to get more of the energy we do need from renewable sources like the sun.

To grow solar we need a steady hand on the tiller. Powering 40% of our country with clean renewable solar energy in 14 years won’t require drastic policy changes, but it will require a long-term commitment to renewable energy at the national, state and local level.

The federal government needs to extend and expand federal clean energy tax credits for solar and other renewable technologies. Recently the Ways & Means committee chaired by western Massachusetts’s own Rep. Richard Neal, included 10-year extensions of clean energy tax incentives in the bill his committee is sending to the House floor. To keep solar growing in America, the House should approve these measures and so should the Senate.

In Massachusetts, lawmakers should support the 100% Clean Act. This legislation sets Massachusetts on a path to 100% clean electricity by 2035 and 100% clean heating and transportation by 2045 — and solar energy will play a key role in meeting these targets. The bill sets clear goals and provides measurable benchmarks for the commonwealth to transition to clean energy to power our electric system, heat our homes and get around.

Additional state action could include incentivizing solar, requiring that every new home and commercial building be built with solar panels on the roof and preserving strong statewide interconnection, net metering and virtual net metering policies that take into account the true value that rooftop solar offers the grid.

Cities and towns can lead on solar adoption. In Massachusetts, localities can put our state on track to one million solar roofs by 2030. There are lots of ways communities can go solar. Examples include putting solar panels on landfills as well as the roofs of such public buildings as the high school, town hall or library. Towns 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. Each solar panel that goes up in our neighborhoods is a step closer to a future powered with clean renewable energy. And when enough cities and towns get on board with going solar, it really starts to add up.

The next 14 years have the potential to take solar from indisputably the most popular form of energy to among the most widely adopted. It will take a suite of policies — foremost modernized and extended incentives — to propel that progress. The sooner we commit to that progress, the sooner we all reap the benefits of cleaner air, cleaner water and a shot at a livable climate for future generations.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. 


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