Bright Ideas Blog, clean energy policy, marketing, solar

What’s that light at the end of the tunnel?


Ever since I got my first exposure to the solar industry working at Applied Materials — where I learned that the same materials that made LCD displays could also make solar panels — I’ve been obsessed with a renewable energy future.

I’m not alone. Since its earliest days – when pioneers at Bell Labs produced the first commercially plausible solar cell, creating an innovation roadmap for thousands of entrepreneurs to pursue – the renewable energy industry has been on a quest to make clean energy affordable, accessible and ubiquitous.

And we’re making progress. In the U.S., utility-scale wind and solar power produced 47% of new generation capacity last year. Eleven states now generate 10% of their electricity from non-hydro renewable energy sources, and three states – Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota – exceed 20 percent from renewables, according to the US CleanTech Leadership Index.

We can finally foresee a future powered by clean energy for our kids – and mine are teenagers. According to recent report by the North Carolina Clean Energy Center, in 42 of America’s top 50 cities, solar is already at grid parity. It’s a better investment than the stock market in 46 of those cities.

Rooftop solar is now cheaper than grid electricity for 30 million Americans. The cost of rooftop solar fell 25% last year alone.

It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel is finally here, and it’s the sun.

But are we really there yet?

After years of being the bright-eyed stepchild, solar is finally being taken seriously – and utilities are of course taking notice. In many of the 44 states where net metering is allowed, utilities are trying to roll back the policy – and surcharges for solar customers have already been passed in states such as Arizona and Wisconsin.

While a handful of states are making impressive inroads in renewable policies and consumer adoption, others are busy trying to set the clock back. In Texas, a particularly cynical attempt to repeal the Renewable Portfolio Standard that was so crucial to the development of the wind industry died just in time for the Legislature to adjourn for the next 18 months.

So while it’s tempting to assume that a renewable future is logical, and is so well-substantiated by numbers that it must be inevitable, we can take nothing for granted. We still have to fight the good fight for responsible clean energy policy. We’ve got to encourage legislators to reallocate the tax credits promised decades ago to fossil fuel energy to renewable energy resources. And we’ve got to do our part to teach consumers and businesses that they have a green choice when it comes to their energy needs.

There’s so much left to do. Still, I can’t suppress the hopeful feeling that renewable energy is finally getting its day at America’s kitchen table. Last month, my 94-year-old father-in-law sat me down in his southside Chicago living room and engaged me in a surprisingly informed conversation about the growth of solar – all gleaned from this article he had read in Time magazine. And it’s not just because he’s incurably curious. It’s because the growth of clean, sustainable energy is impossible to ignore. And it’s hard not to love, just a little.

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