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Will solar energy become the world’s primary supplier of electricity? While our reliance on fossil fuels isn’t likely to dissipate in the near future, solar energy is emerging as one of the most universal and renewable alternatives to traditional fuel power.
For years, natural gas was considered the cheapest and most environmentally-friendly substitute to traditional fossil fuels. Car companies like Honda enticed customers with the Civic GX, a natural-gas vehicle that began production in 1998, and it wasn’t long before competitors started to follow suit. Despite a rough start, sales eventually picked up, and drivers were soon saving money and making fewer stops at the pump.
But some feel solar energy is more cost-effective than natural gas. “If you take a solar panel from someone’s rooftop and put it in a field, the amount you would pay for that power drops precipitously,” says California-based attorney Matt Freedman.
In the early days of solar power, installation could run up quite a bill, but selling to utilities directly has lowered costs tremendously. Ten years ago, generating electricity from one’s rooftop cost anywhere between $184 and $300 per megawatt-hour. Utility-scale solar power, however, costs $50 to $70, and these new prices are inspiring purchases like never before.
“The response has been, quite honestly, astonishing,” says Jim Hughes of First Solar. “The utility world suddenly sat up and took notice and said, I had no idea that’s where the cost of solar stood.”
Hughes even comments that states without “green policies” in force have been quick to take advantage of the prices. Georgia, for example, was the country’s sixth-largest solar market in 2015, yet employs very little rooftop solar power. Texas, Alabama and neighboring southern regions have been quick to duplicate Georgia’s actions.
“We are seeing large swaths of centralized utility scale solar be procured primarily because of how cost-competitive it is,” says Cory Honeyman of GMT Research. “That’s a different kind of narrative.”
Prices may also be going down because installers have gotten better at what they do. Speaking with Planet Experts, Editorial Director of SolarCity Barry Fischer explained that installation crews, at one point, typically required anywhere between 48-72 hours to install solar panels to a customer’s roof. Extra time invoked additional costs, and clients would pay bundles in installation fees. With time, however, the company’s team honed its craft to bring installation times to less than 24 hours, saving homeowners quite a bit in the long run.
But a problem exists in the form of net metering laws. Net metering allows residential and commercial clients employing solar power to “feed electricity they do not use back into the grid.” Several states have passed respective net metering laws, forcing utilities to purchase energy generated from rooftops at considerably higher rates than one might witness with centralized power. These laws have long been the object of debate, with opponents saying that non-solar energy buyers are required to shoulder the remaining neighborhood costs, and advocates claiming that the presence of solar power lessens these costs to begin with. So far, these arguments have produced few results.
“I’d put the value of solar in the eye of the beholder,” says Brian Lips of the Clean Energy Technology Center in North Carolina.
In an attempt to block further opposition, many solar companies are expanding their horizons for the purpose of being more economically sound. SolarCity, for example, succeeded as a panel installation establishment, but has since begun construction of a processing plant in Western New York. SolarCity will soon serve “double-duty” as both an installer and a manufacturer, which should lower costs even further for its customers. SolarCity will soon install panels created by its own company.