Ron Kamen in front of the Curtis family's solar shed, added to their south-facing wall to provide solar heat and hot water and gain storage space. The rectangular panel on the right is a solar air heater for heating a kid's bedroom. (photo credit James Orr)
Humans are great at consuming energy. We have come to depend on energy for everything—powering our motor vehicles, heating and cooling our homes, workplaces, and electronic devices, transporting our food and water from source to marketplace, and so on. For the last 100+ years, we’ve been relying on abundant fossil fuels for our growing energy needs. Today, the scientists at the SUNY Atmospheric Science Research Center calculate that the world uses an incredible 16 trillion watts (16 terawatts, or 16 TW) of power every year.
Here’s the problem: even if we deep drill every last pint of oil; frack every last cubic inch of natural gas; and strip mine every last ounce of coal and uranium, scientists estimate that the world will only have enough fossil energy for about 100 more years—and that’s if we don’t increase our energy use. So far, we’ve been blessed with enough fossil fuels to sustain our energy-dependent lifestyles. But we only need to observe the ever-weirder weather to realize that burning the last of the world’s carbon reserves is having a disastrous environmental impact on our lives today—and will dramatically change the world for our children and grandchildren.
Ray of Hope
When we compare the world’s total energy use of 16 terawatts to non-solar renewable energy sources, we find that wind, hydro and tidal (water), geothermal (Earth), and biomass could supply 80 TWs per year—or more than five times the amount of energy we currently need. Then there’s our planet’s other energy resource, the ultimate source of power: the sun. Compared to the 16 TWs of total world energy use; or the 80 TWs that we can get every year from non-solar renewables; or the one-time 1,600 TWs from all fossil fuels, the sun sends us 23,000 TWs of usable energy every year.
Perhaps more importantly, solar energy saves money. Recent advances in solar—technology, cost reductions, government incentives, and long-term financing—now make solar electricity an excellent cost-saving option for residents, businesses, and institutions.
If you have a modest amount of money to invest in your home or office building, a solar energy system can earn back your investment in only a few years and go on saving for you. Even better, new financing options now provide the opportunity to go solar with small amounts or even no cash at all. Almost any homeowner, business, or institution can now have a solar system that will “zero out” their annual utility electric bill—and save 10% or more every month on your utility costs, even without putting out any cash.
Here are three ways consumers can “go solar and save”:
1) You invest your own capital. The solar installer takes the NYS cash incentive “off the top,” you claim a 30% Federal and 25% NYS tax credit. After the cash and tax incentives, the solar system’s savings from reducing the electric bill pays for itself in three to seven years, providing an annual “return on investment” far superior (and with much less risk) than any stock on Wall Street.
2) You have a third party financing company pay for the entire installation, and the third party takes the incentives and tax benefits. In this case, you have put no money down and still get a solar system. You pay the third party for the energy generated (in either a “solar lease” or “power purchase agreement”), but usually save 10% or more per kilowatt hour compared to the utility cost.
3. You invest in a hybrid “pre-paid lease”—for which you make a one-time payment—then keep all the savings for 20 years. At the end of the lease term, you purchase the system for either $1 or fair market value, depending on the contract terms (make sure you read the fine print!)
In all these situations, solar customers stay connected to “the grid,” and the utility continues to provide power at night and during cloudy days. But, over a year, these “net metered” systems generate as much electricity as is consumed. For people who desire electric back-up for those times when the electric utility lines go down (an ever-increasing outcome of climate disruption)—a solar project can be upgraded to enable short or long-term back-up power options.
Among the installations that have been secured with some assistance from our consulting firm are a solar hot water system at Benedictine Hospital that is saving 2,000 gallons of oil per year, solar hot water systems for two of the residential dorms at Bard College; and a 50,000-watt rooftop solar electric system at the Center for Automotive Education, in Queens. Meanwhile, the Curtis family in Clinton gained a solar electric system that offsets 100% of their family’s electricity with a “pre-paid lease,” for which they made one minimal payment and will keep the entire monthly and annual savings for 20 years, then purchase the system for $1.
The sun is the largest power source on the planet. Now, solar can be installed on our roofs, in our yards, or on top of a new shed, gazebo, carport, or porch—and we can save money, while helping save the planet, and moving toward true energy independence.
We can burn through all the remaining fossil fuels or we can make the clean energy transition today, and leave a legacy we—and our children—will be proud of. The choice is ours.
This article originally appeared in the Dutchess County publication AboutTown and can be viewed on their site.