By Sarah Lozanova
A big concern with large-scale solar farms is the impact on land use. Solar developers often site projects on agricultural land that is taken out of production. Also, the vegetation around solar panels needs to be maintained to prevent shading. In some cases, herbicides are used, contaminating waterways, and mowing generates pollution. If the developer applies gravel or plants turfgrass, the land has little wildlife value.
As the local food movement gains steam, isn’t it counterproductive to turn productive cropland into an energy plant? How can the solar energy industry embrace biodiversity while producing clean energy? Is dual use of a solar site possible?
Solar farms can be managed to increase pollinator habitat, improve soil quality, and even for livestock grazing. Innovative land management approaches enable solar projects to serve multiple purposes, benefitting the local economy. Keeping honeybees, grazing sheep, and even cultivating mushrooms can all complement a solar energy project.
Native Wildflowers Boost Pollinator Habitat
Researchers with the Argonne National Laboratory are examining the economic benefits of establishing native vegetation, including wildflowers and prairie grasses, on nearby cropland. Native vegetation attracts crucial critters like bees, flies, bats, birds, wasps, moths, and butterflies, which can be beneficial to crop yields.
Researchers with the Argonne National Laboratory are examining the economic benefits of establishing native vegetation on nearby cropland, including wildflowers and prairie grasses. A diverse array of native plants benefits wildlife diversity, especially pollinators. These crucial critters include bees, flies, bats, birds, wasps, moths, and butterflies, and can be beneficial to crop yields.
Image Credit: Danny Piper of Sundog Solar
There is now enough installed solar energy capacity in the U.S. to power 13.5 million homes, and this amount is expected to double in the next five years. The solar energy industry is part of a very dynamic market. Many factors — including government policies, fossil fuel costs, solar energy technology advances, commodity prices, and even public awareness of the climate crisis — impact solar energy deployment across the globe.
What’s in store for the year ahead? Let’s explore some trends in solar energy to better understand what is on tap for 2020.
Solar Battery Prices Are Falling
Solar energy is an intermittent energy source. This means that solar panels produce power when the sun is shining and not when it isn’t. Energy storage allows the solar system to supply power when the sun has set or in cloudy weather, expanding the capabilities of solar energy systems.
There are two main types of solar batteries: lead-acid batteries (like you have in your car) and lithium-ion batteries. The latter is far more advanced, longer-lasting, and requires less maintenance. Not surprising, lithium-ion batteries have a higher upfront cost, but the price has been decreasing significantly in recent years. The cost of lithium-ion battery storage fell 35 percent from the first half of 2018 to now (December 2019) and 76 percent since 2012. This downward price trend is good news for renewable solar energy in 2020 — and it’s likely to continue.
Natural gas plants are often used to meet peak energy loads because they can more easily be turned on and off than coal or nuclear power plants. Lower costs make it easier for intermittent renewable energy sources — such as wind and solar — to be cost-competitive with dispatchable fossil-fired power plants. Price decreases in utility-scale battery banks now make solar plus energy storage competitive in many areas on price alone. Battery banks can make it unnecessary to fire up power plants during times of peak demand, reducing fossil fuel consumption. The greater the capabilities of solar, the less attractive and financially viable these peaker power plants become.
On the residential side, more homeowners are relying on solar systems with battery storage for emergency power during grid outages than ever before. This is an especially attractive option in areas prone to extended power outages due to natural disasters or with inadequate utility infrastructure, like Puerto Rico.
Image Credit: Sundog Solar
By Sarah Lozanova
The U.S. has more than 2 million solar installations. This means there are tens of millions of solar panels on roofs and racking systems. Solar energy is fantastic for reducing carbon emissions and promoting energy independence, but what happens at the end of the panel’s 30-year lifespan?
There is a looming waste management issue as solar systems age and will eventually be decommissioned. Is the U.S. prepared for large-scale solar panel recycling?
“Installations two decades ago are nearing their end of life, and that becomes a challenge for the waste industry,” says Garvin Heath, a senior scientist in the Strategic Energy Analysis Center of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Because it takes a long time to develop technology and policy and solutions to dealing with end-of-life products, this is something we need to start to address today.”
According to Heath, solar panels could comprise more than 10 percent of global electronic waste by 2050.
Solar panel recycling presents an economic opportunity and can spawn new industries. A study by the International Renewable Agency (IRENA) estimates that by 2050, $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar panels. There are also repair and reuse opportunities for solar panels that fail prematurely. These repaired solar panels are often sold at a discount, creating opportunities in new markets where affordability is an issue.
What Parts of the Solar Panel Can Be Recycled?
Glass, plastic, aluminum, and silicon comprise 99 percent of the silicon-based solar panels.
Image Credit: Nichole McClure
By Sarah Lozanova
Greater energy independence, freedom from fluctuating energy prices, and environmentally friendly living are alluring concepts that motivated my family to examine our housing and our lifestyle. We recently purchased a high-performance home and installed a solar system, making our home net-zero. We now produce as much power as we use over the course of a year.
Realizing the Dream of a Net-Zero HomeTo realize the dream of a net-zero home, we bought a superefficient home atBelfast Cohousing & Ecovillage, a 36-unit multigenerational community in Midcoast Maine with triple-pane windows and doors, virtually airtight construction, a solar orientation and lots of insulation. The sun, appliances and occupants provide a majority of the heat needed to keep our home cozy.
On sunny winter days, our heaters remain off, as the sun gradually warms the house. Electric baseboard heaters kick on as needed, primarily at night or on cold, cloudy days. The home is all electric—with an electric range, hot water heaters and space heaters. Because we don’t use propane, natural gas or heating oil, a solar system can produce all the energy that our home consumes.
By Sarah Lozanova
The U.S. has enough installed solar energy capacity to power 4.6 million homes. Solar energy accounted for 32 percent of total new power generation in 2014, exceeding coal and wind energy but lagging behind natural gas. In just nine years, the installed cost of solar energy has fallen by more than 73 percent – setting up the industry for explosive growth.
TriplePundit spoke with Vikram Aggarwal, founder and CEO of EnergySage, the so-called “Expedia of solar,” about solar energy trends and what to expect for 2016 in the residential market.
1. Unprecedented boom continues
Last year, analysts predicted that solar would grow by 57.4 gigawatts in 2015. The recent five-year extension of the investment tax credit (ITC) in the U.S. for both residential and commercial installations further enhances the growth trend. Now that solar manufacturing capacity has expanded significantly, the price of solar equipment has plummeted – making solar energy cheaper than grid-supplied power in many markets.
“The residential solar market is a vibrant $7 billion industry, and on track to generate more revenue by year-end 2016 than Major League Baseball,” Aggarwal said. “The economics of solar are rapidly changing for solar shoppers, installers and financiers alike.”
Google is leading the clean-energy revolution like no other company. It has invested in 22 renewable energy projects to date. In fact, Google is the biggest corporate purchaser globally of renewable energy, with a hand in utility-scale wind and solar projects that span the globe. Google has a goal to power 100 percent of its operations from renewable energy, and it is well on its way.
“We’re really trying to lead this transition to a cleaner energy economy,” said Michael Terrell, principal for energy and infrastructure at Google. “It’s transforming anyone who touches the energy space. It’s not just about data centers or tech companies.”
The Google approach to renewable energy is not unlike how many utilities purchase power. It often enters into power purchase agreements: long-term financial agreements, typically with wind farms, to buy power. The projects that Google has been involved with span the globe, including in Sweden, Iowa, Oklahoma and California, along with a recent $12 million investment in the largest solar energy project in South Africa.
by Sarah Lozanova
Installed solar energy capacity in the U.S. is growing dramatically, with numerous record-shattering years in a row. There is now enough installed solar energy to power over 4.6 million U.S. homes and a new solar project is installed every two minutes. Meanwhile, the cost of solar has fallen significantly, helping to fuel this unprecedented growth.
Solar energy (r)evolution
Since 1998, the cost of residential and commercial solar photovoltaic (PV) systems has fallen every year by an average of 6 to 8 percent, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Since 2006, the installed cost of solar energy has dropped more than 73%. Once a market dominated by environmental motives, many people are now installing solar PV to save money.
This 36-unit community may be the nation's first planned development built around Passive House green building standards.
By Sarah Lozanova
Even from the layout of the homes, visitors can tell something is unique about Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage. “Where are the driveways?” one guest asks. “How strange, these houses don’t have any driveways!”
Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage (BCE) is a 36-unit intentional community on 42 acres in Midcoast Maine. Members designed the community from 2008 to 2011, before breaking ground in 2011; GO Logic, a Belfast-based design-build firm that specializes in sustainable building, designed the units and site plan and served as general contractor.
The homes are clustered, and a pedestrian path, not a road, runs through the six-and-a-half-acre built area. Despite being a rural property, all the homes are located in two- to four-unit buildings and range from 500 to 1,800 square feet with one to three bedrooms. The community layout encourages social interaction, offers safety for children, and provides open space for food production, wildlife and recreation. With PV solar systems, these highly efficient homes are near net zero.
PASSIVE HOUSE DESIGNS
When one enters the homes, it becomes obvious that the lack of driveways is only one of many differences between these houses and the average code-built home. Despite being located in Midcoast Maine, the houses have no furnaces.
Freelance clean energy writer