Solar is booming! Despite recent debate and uncertainty surrounding environmental policy and the future of renewable energy, solar power technology is stronger and more sustainable than ever before. According to a recent report published by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research, the solar industry experienced its largest growth spurt yet last year, with 4,143 megawatts of solar generating capacity installed in the third quarter of 2016, an increase of 191% from Q3 2015. With green technology innovators like Tesla’s Elon Musk jumping on solar, increased investment and continued growth in solar technology is expected, on into the next decade.
How Does it Work, Anyway?
Solar energy technologies, photovoltaic and thermal solar energy systems convert sunlight into usable electricity or heat. Photovoltaic cells produce electricity directly using semiconductors made from silicon or other materials, while direct thermal systems use solar energy as a source of heat, for buildings, industrial processes or domestic hot water. These same systems can also generate electricity by operating heat engines or by producing steam to spin electric turbines.
Benefits of Solar:
Aside from the more obvious, “green” benefits of solar energy including zero air emissions and the reduction of power generation from traditional sources and their corresponding environmental impacts, solar energy systems can yield tremendous cost savings for the owner. First and foremost, solar energy has no fuel costs, so the majority of the expense is incurred with the initial investment in the equipment. The saving doesn’t stop there. Washington State utilizes a process known as “net metering”, you only pay your utility service the difference between what your solar power system generates and the amount of electricity you use. If the amount of solar energy produced exceeds the amount of energy you are using, your electric meter will actually spin backwards, resulting in even more savings. Additionally, your existing utility service will pay you for every kilowatt-hour of electricity you give back to the grid, from $0.15–$0.54 per kilowatt-hour, up to $5,000 per year.
Isn’t the Pacific Northwest Climate too Cloudy for Solar?
No! According to Renewable Northwest, the Northwest receives more than enough rays to meet (and exceed) our energy needs for the foreseeable future. In fact, the cloudy, often rainy climate of the Pacific Northwest is comparable to Germany, a worldwide leader in solar production, on target to become 100% green in its energy use in the very near future.
What’s Hot in Solar?
Recently, the biggest steps in solar energy are being made by Elon Musk, in Tesla’s collaboration with SolarCity, having developed the innovative, tempered glass solar roofing system, code-named “Steel Pulse”. From afar, the solar power system, officially named Solar Roof, looks similar to a traditional rooftop, but these unique shingles have been retrofitted with a transformative system—and one, Musk promises, is far more durable, will last longer and cost less for the owner, all while generating electricity.
Unlike traditional solar panels, which can be mounted on top of existing shingles, SolarCity’s roof system requires complete re-roofing. Looking into the future, the combined companies are working on further developing their financing models to make the technology more affordable and accelerate the installation process, while leveraging Tesla’s retail footprint, to sell their vision of transitioning the entire world to sustainable energy. According to Fast Company, these roof tiles are the latest component of Musk’s larger plan to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels. “Solar power might be an undeniable part of our future—the industry created double the amount of jobs as coal did last year and accounts for nearly 40% of new electric capacity added to the grid, more than wind or even natural gas”.