Energy Tech Tips Community

During Climate Week in September, we started asking our community to send us their questions about climate change and clean energy. Over the next month, people submitted some great questions. We’ve answered a few of them on Instagram (check out our videos on distributed energy resources and what we hope to see from COP26), but we’ll be rounding up many more here, along with answers from your friendly Arcadia energy nerds.

And by all means, stay climate-curious! Keep sending us any other questions on your mind here.

Q: What should you consider when looking to install home solar and storage systems?

A: We got a lot of questions that deal with different aspects of installing rooftop solar and/or solar storage systems, from knowing whether you qualify for rooftop solar to whether solar storage is worth it. Many of the questions had to deal with picking the best installer or best battery. While we can’t give you individual names, we decided to tackle all of these questions about the process together.

If you’re considering installing rooftop solar panels on your home, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has a comprehensive Residential Consumer Guide to Solar Power that contains a ton of helpful information about all parts of the solar experience. We definitely recommend checking that out. But broadly speaking, the first thing you need to do when considering going solar is determine whether you’re even a good fit for rooftop panels. EnergySage, another great resource for all questions solar, lists five key questions that can help you figure this out:

  • How much do you spend on electricity now?
  • What type of home do you live in? Do you own it?
  • Is your roof suitable for solar?
  • What tax incentives and/or rebates can you take advantage of?
  • How much does solar cost in your region?

Armed with the answers to those questions, your next step is to choose a solar provider. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut for this; it’s important to do your research. Just like you would when you hire a contractor for any other home project, gather multiple quotes from different solar providers. A couple things to look out for:

  • Make sure you ask questions. Companies should be able to provide you with detailed answers. The Solar Nerd has a handy checklist of interview questions you should ask potential contractors.
  • Listen if a company says that solar might not be a good fit for you. Companies should be honest with you about how well solar will work for you. If they tell you that you’ll need a new roof first or that your house is too shaded for solar to be cost-effective, they’re not trying to discourage you — they’re doing their jobs well.
  • Don’t judge companies based solely on price. Also consider their years of experience and Better Business Bureau reviews.

Solar storage systems

When you install solar panels, any excess electricity that they generate goes back to the power grid. If you install a battery or other storage system with your panels, any power you don’t use right away is stored for you to use later when your panels aren’t producing as much electricity (e.g., at night or during a power outage). Having a storage option reduces the amount of power you have to draw from the power grid.

There are several types of storage, including batteries. Just like with solar panels, the first thing to do when considering solar storage is determine whether you’re a good fit. If you aren’t on a time-of-use rate or you don’t experience frequent power outages, for instance, it may not be worthwhile for you. But there are many situations where installing solar storage is absolutely worth the cost, especially considering that most batteries last 10-15 years.

The best battery for you will depend on your situation. EnergySage breaks down six factors to think about based on your goals for battery storage.

And remember — if you can’t install solar panels for whatever reason, community solar is a great way to get the benefits of solar without the hassle of installing your own panels.

Q: How does a low-income person afford solar panels?

A: According to the US Energy Information Administration, one in three families in the US will experience energy insecurity, or difficulty paying power bills. Installing solar panels can be a huge help because it can lower — or even completely eliminate — electricity costs. But the upfront costs can be a big barrier for low-income households.

There are incentives and tax credits to help homeowners afford renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency has a comprehensive list by state. Some states have also created solar assistance programs specifically for low-income households, as well. In addition, two federal programs, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) through the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) through the US Department of Energy, are starting to pilot programs to include assistance for solar panels.

For families who don’t own their homes, or for whom the upfront cost is still an obstacle, community solar is a great alternative to rooftop solar panels. Instead of installing panels yourself, you subscribe to a local solar farm. When the solar farm generates electricity, you get solar credits back on your power bill. There’s no extra cost to join and, because the solar panels are housed elsewhere, anyone who pays a power bill can join. It’s an easy, direct way to get the benefits of solar energy.

Q: What happens if solar panels don’t produce enough energy?

A: Generally, we get our power from a range of different sources — fossil fuels, nuclear, wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, to name some of the big ones. The power mix fluctuates depending on season, time of day, and demand. This cool graphic shows the power mix in each state. Right now, solar makes up a fairly small percentage of the power mix in most states. That’s changing, but it means that we still rely on many other sources of energy besides solar.

If you have solar panels on your roof, they’re generating a lot of the energy you use at home. But getting a solar system to meet all of your energy usage may not be realistic — the average US home uses more than 10,600 kWh of electricity a year. A solar photovoltaic (PV) system large enough to generate that much energy could be expensive and take up more space than you have available. There will also be times — at night, or in the winter — when the panels don’t generate as much energy. If you’re using more energy than your solar panels can produce, then you’ll draw energy from the grid, too. Solar storage systems (see above) can help with this, but this is just one more reason to make sure the energy coming from the grid is clean!

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Q: How do you figure out the lowest-carbon time of day to use electricity?

A: OK, we just talked about the power mix above and how it fluctuates. That means that there are times of day when the power mix is less carbon-intensive (cleaner) vs. more carbon-intensive (dirtier). Those fluctuations occur because of weather (we get more solar power in the summer and on sunny days, for instance) and electricity demand (when demand is higher, we have to turn on older, dirtier peaker plants to meet that demand).

As we increase the amount of renewable energy on the grid, the difference between high-carbon times and low-carbon times will get bigger and more important (it’s not super consequential today, but it still matters). Unfortunately, as an individual consumer, it can be tough to figure out the lowest-carbon time to use power. How are you supposed to know? The ultimate goal is to make that much, much easier. There are a couple ways to do that:

  • Time of use rates — If your utility has a time of use (TOU) option, you’re actually incentivized to use electricity when demand is lower (i.e., less carbon-intensive) through price. You’ll pay more for electricity at times of peak demand, such as in the evening.
  • Automation — Much of our energy use can be shifted without drastically affecting our lives (e.g., when you run your dishwasher, when you charge your EV). Energy innovators are developing smart solutions to automate this so that you don’t have to think about it. You could just set your EV to charge when electricity is cheapest and cleanest, for instance. Smart thermostats are already doing this for home heating and cooling. You set the temperature, and the thermostat will heat or cool your home when energy costs less — you stay comfortable, but you’re using power more efficiently and more cleanly.
Q: How much of the present climate crisis is reversible? Or are we now into just preventing further damage?

A: Well, we have bad news and good news here. Bad news first: No, the climate crisis isn’t totally reversible, at least, not in our lifetimes. According to the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, temperatures are likely to rise 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels in the next two decades. That will put us past the goal of the Paris climate agreement — world leaders tried to figure out how to prevent exactly that at COP26, but we’re just not moving quickly enough. So we’re looking at two strategies in the immediate term:

  • Mitigation - We have to drastically limit the amount of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere so that the problem doesn’t get worse
  • Adaptation - At the same time, we need to help communities adapt to the effects of climate change we’re already seeing

Now for the good news: Everything we do to keep the situation from getting worse makes a big difference. If we stopped emitting greenhouse gasses today, the rise in Earth’s temperatures would start to flatten within a few years. But if we don’t take action, temperatures are set to rise by 2.5 °C to 4.5 °C (4.5 °F to 8 °F) by 2100, according to the latest estimates. That would be catastrophic. Think more extreme weather, crop failures, species extinction, dramatic sea-level rise…every post-apocalyptic story ever, basically. That is a future we can still prevent. Every fraction of a degree of warming we can prevent keeps the effects of climate change from getting that much worse.

Want more good news? We know what to do to limit global warming! We need to electrify everything and kick carbon off the power grid, and we need to do it quickly. A lot of companies, including Arcadia, are working on doing exactly that. Together, we can course-correct and un-crisis the climate.

Q: How much land area would we need to be 50% solar powered? Could we also have native ground cover under the panels to support pollinators, wildlife, soil, and water?

A: Ready for a solar fun fact? It would take just 22,000 square miles of land, or around the size of Lake Michigan, for enough solar panels to power the entire country.

And yes, we can definitely have native ground cover under the panels! There’s actually an entire field called agrivoltaics, which refers to the practice of putting solar panels and agriculture in the same space. This could be for pollinator habitats (like at our Agawam solar farm), livestock grazing, or crops.

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Holly Bowers

Holly Bowers is a copywriter at Arcadia.

Boulder, CO