Since its discovery in 1876 by William Grylls Adams, the use of solar power has exploded in recent years as a promising and effective tool for gathering safe, renewable energy as an economically viable alternative to burning fossil fuels and depleting the earth’s already strained natural resources. In fact, the use of solar-powered energy in the United States has seen an average annual growth rate of 68% since 2006, and in 2016 the millionth solar energy system in the United States was installed—a far cry from 2001 when there only 1,000 solar panels installed in homes in the United States. With the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) expecting to double those numbers by 2018, solar energy seems set to revolutionize the way we power our lives—and the boom is only just getting started.
This rising popularity comes as no surprise. The gradual inclusion of solar energy and the move away from reliance on coal and natural gas comes with many potential benefits for both the installers of solar energy systems and the environment—and the sooner we can make a healthy transition, the more money we can save efficiently and the more we can reduce our carbon footprint and help create a healthier world for our neighbors, community, and the world.
What are some of the personal benefits to switching to solar-powered energy?
Incorporating solar energy into the home and business life can come with a decisive monetary advantage. The average residential American consumes about 901 kilowatthours (kWh) of energy per month, resulting in a monthly energy bill of about $111—and, according to the Edison Electric Institute, the annual costs are climbing reliably over time at a rate of a 2.5% increase every year since 2000.
An average 4 kW installation in your residence or business can be a huge offset to these costs. Depending on the particulars of your location, such as the amount of sun where you live, many systems can generate enough energy to meet half of your total energy consumption, which, of course, can cut monthly expenses down the middle. Taken over an extended period, that adds up very quickly from hundreds of dollars saved over the course of one year to thousands saved over decades.
While installing a solar system in your home or business can be expensive, there are many cost offset programs available to help you make your money back and reap the benefits. In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which included an Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar energy that allows for a tax deduction equivalent to 30% of the cost of installing a solar system in your home. In addition, there are dozens of policies and incentives in each state to help offset the cost of installation. Among these incentives are net metering, which is where utility companies track the amount of electricity you create and use it to offset costs of equivalent energy consumed; solar renewable energy certificates (SRECS), which allow you to sell utility certificates on the open market; and feed-in tariffs, pay you for the energy your system produces even if you use it yourself.
With all of these benefits, you can offset solar system installation costs over the course of a few years and begin saving and even making money with the natural energy you’ve produced.
What are some environmental benefits to solar energy?
According to an MIT class study in 2008, the average American household annually emits no less than 8.2 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2)—a gas that is released in large amounts from burning fuel and added to the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat inside the atmosphere and causing global temperatures to rise in a very damaging and environmentally dangerous process. Per the U.S. Green Buildings Council (USGBC), commercial and residential buildings are responsible for 39% of CO2 emissions in the United States—more than any other factors, including industry and transport. The lion’s share of this effect comes from the use of electricity that runs on fossil fuels. Naturally, then, solar energy greatly helps reduce this electricity consumption and reduces CO2 emissions. In fact, the SEIA says that solar energy so far has offset 37 million metric tons of CO2—the equivalent of reducing carbon emissions to the tune of planting 956 million trees!
What about the health benefits of solar energy?
Countering CO2 emissions aren’t the only environmental benefit of solar energy. In addition to carbon dioxide, other harmful byproducts of burning fossil fuels to power electricity include the spreading of particulate matter, mercury, methane (CO4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and sulfur dioxide (SO), which can cause acid rain, smog, air pollution, and cause long-term environmental impacts on aquatic life—as about one-third of water pollutants end up in the ocean. All of this serves to further poison the environment and have detrimental effects on human health.
Pollution is no joke. In 2013, an MIT study found that air pollution caused 200,000 premature deaths in the United States per year. Of those, power generation was a huge contributor–rushing about 51,000 people to an early grave. The worst city in the study was Baltimore, a notably environmentally toxic city with air pollution so high that it may have caused as high as 130 out of every 100,000 premature deaths where people affected by pollution died as many as ten years earlier than they might have without the harmful influence of the pollutants. The burning of fossil fuels also contributes to a myriad of other health risks, including damaging and often fatal cardiovascular and respiratory complications.
A switch to solar energy means an environmentally-friendly and healthy step away from a non-renewable, environmentally dangerous, and toxic source of energy and a step forward towards an energy source that is replenished daily—with none of the harmful side effects that burning fossil fuels brings. As the boom towards healthy, renewable and safe energy continues to swell in the coming years, the benefits of solar power can only become more pronounced—and, cost permitting, there’s no better day to take the first step than today!