Editor’s note: This article is part of a Groundswell’s summer celebration around solar power, as we explore what it means to go solar, common concerns about solar, and how to make the switch.
This Fourth of July, we’re celebrating our Energy Independence with our solar program.
If you have questions about the way solar works or about the process of going solar, leave us a note in the comments, or send us an email at email@example.com. Whether through an article or through an email, we’ll make sure your solar questions are answered!
Summer is here, the sun is shining, and the solar power industry is doing better than ever.
The cost of solar power has dropped a dramatic 95% in the last 30 years, and many expect it to keep falling, making it at least on par with fossil fuels, if not cheaper. And it’s not just the panels that are getting less expensive: solar installation and equipment are too, all of which is contributing to exciting innovations, from solar-lit bike paths to photovoltaic (PV) cells that can be built right into windows. Japan recently completed two solar power plants that float on water, and China is rapidly expanding solar energy production in the Gobi Desert. Globally, more than 1% of all energy now comes from the sun.
And it isn’t all national-level, high-tech projects. While many developing economies are far outpacing the likes of the US in how quickly they’re building solar capacity, citizens in those countries—especially in poorer, rural areas—are also becoming a consumer force for solar-powered appliances. From ovens to lights to cell phone chargers, more and more solar devices are meeting the needs of communities that live off the grid, or don’t have a reliable electricity supply.
But somewhere between the fields of solar panels and the nifty gadgets tailored to off-grid users is the “average” American consumer—people like me who either don’t own a roof, or don’t have the disposable income to invest in solar panels, because despite the price drop, they’ll still set you back about $17,000 on average. And let’s face it: solar gadgets are available in American markets, but they often seem more like camping accessories than items for everyday use.
So if you’re looking at all of the news about solar energy and wondering “Where do I fit in to all this?”—you’re not alone. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have options, so keep these facts in mind:
1. Financing options for solar power have come a long way.
Companies like SolarCity and Sungevity promise to set up solar panels for little or even no money down, allowing users to pay back installation costs while saving money on electricity. And they’ll even work with new owners if a house gets sold.
There are also exciting firms like Sungage Financial, which specializes in finding financing solutions for homeowners who want to invest in solar, and Mosaic, the first peer-to-peer lending platform for solar power.
2. You don’t have to go 100% solar, all at once.
It’s possible to add solar panels incrementally, as you save up. But you’ll be paying for installation costs every time, and given the financing options just mentioned, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. A better way to go is to have a solar water heater put in—a cost that otherwise takes up more electricity than all other household appliances combined. A solar water heater still comes with a price tag of $4,000 or so for professional installation, but that’s a considerably lower commitment than the full solar package.
3. There are more and more shared renewable energy options.
This year, California has been taking the lead when it comes to solar power. Most recently, the state passed the Green Tariff Shared Renewables Program, requiring the three largest investor-owned utility companies to provide customers with the option of purchasing green energy through your energy bill, much of which is likely to come from solar. There are still some logistical and pricing details to be worked out in California, but this is technically a very easy way to go green without ever having to deal with a solar panel.
Another cool new company is Yeloha, where customers can sign up to host solar panels and share that energy with others who aren’t able to put up their own panels—all while promising to save you money.
4. Solar gadgets aren’t just for camping.
If none of the options above work for you, there are still really clever solar-powered gadgets that you can incorporate into your everyday routine without breaking the bank. Check out these recommendations for solar phone chargers under $100.
There are also solar patio lights and solar Christmas tree lights, which will apparently also save you money while greening your lifestyle. But realize that many small appliances and chargers don’t use that much electricity. So if you’re serious about reducing your carbon footprint while staying on a budget, but aren’t ready to spring for a solar-powered alternative, the best thing you can is to increase your energy efficiency (think washing your clothes in cold water).
Disclaimer: I purchase my electricity through Groundswell’s wind energy program. I have no vested interest in any of the solar companies or products mentioned in this article. But I’m sure there are many more out there, so if you know of others, or have experience with solar services or products, please share your story!
Katherine Manchester is an international development professional, with roots in Maine and Tanzania. She has written about issues of environmental sustainability and gender. For fun, she enjoys reading and messing around in sailboats.