For as long as people's homes have been connected to electrical grids, their options were limited to whatever energy source their utility relied on to generate power. That typically meant pollution-causing fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas.
But the way the US generates power saw a huge shift in 2022, as for the first time more electricity was drawn from renewable sources such as wind or hydro than from coal, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The EIA expects renewable sources to eventually overtake natural gas as the leading source of electricity in the US.
Another big energy shakeup is afoot in the US, as the costs of solar energy systems, which absorb then convert photons from the sun into electricity, have fallen enough to be competitive on price and efficiency. The average value, the EIA's proxy for price, of solar panels decreased from $1.96 per peak kilowatt in 2010 to 34 cents per peak kilowatt in 2021.
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It's clear that solar power has gained a foothold in the US and will continue to grow in the coming years, especially as more people take advantage of the federal government's tax credits for renewable energy.
But what exactly is renewable energy, and why is it important?
What is renewable energy?
Traditional sources of energy such as coal or natural gas are extracted from the planet and turned into fuel to generate power. These carbon-heavy materials are finite and will eventually be depleted. Extracting and burning these fossil fuels for energy is the leading cause of climate warming emissions, like carbon dioxide and methane, and a major source of other pollution too.
Renewables, on the other hand, create energy from sources like solar radiation, wind or water currents. Theoretically, renewables provide an infinite supply of power.
How does solar energy work?
Solar energy is naturally occurring and plentiful. The sun is already sending its photons to our planet, providing warmth and fueling plant life. Solar panels just make it so the sun fuels your coffee maker too.
"All a solar system does is capture and convert that energy," said Asim Hafeez, owner and operator of Empower Energy Solutions, a Connecticut-based solar installer. "Solar panels don't produce power, they capture energy that's already hitting our planet."
Here's a broad overview of how energy from the sun powers your fridge, TV and other electrical devices in your home.
1. The sun's rays reach the planet.
2. Solar panels, mainly made of silicon-based photovoltaic cells, absorb some of that energy, while much of it bounces off.
3. The energy, in direct current form, then flows through an inverter to transform to alternating current. It is now usable.
4. If your home is connected to an electrical grid, the power generated might flow into the grid.
5. Finally, an electrical panel disseminates the electricity through your home, powering all your devices.
Why is renewable energy important?
Aside from the fact that coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels are a major contributor to climate change, they are in limited supply and will eventually be used up. It is in humanity's best interest to find alternative fuel sources, and it makes sense to use sources that are clean, limitless and available to everyone.
"As a civilization, our consumption of energy has only gone up," Hafeez said. "If we're pulling from a finite energy source, it's just a matter of time before it runs out. Modern civilization will cease to exist without finding infinite sources of power."
Why go solar?
Reducing your individual energy consumption may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but many people adopting renewables such as solar can make a considerable impact. But there are other benefits as well.
"Investing in residential solar energy is a smart decision for many folks who want to lower their electricity bills over time, reduce their carbon footprint and increase the value of their home," said Gilbert Michaud, assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago's School of Environmental Sustainability. "Installing solar can also help support local jobs for installers and manufacturers."
If you're considering powering your home with solar energy, here are some advantages and disadvantages you should consider:
- Lower energy bills: Using energy generated from solar panels atop your home is considerably cheaper than pulling electricity from the grid. In this way, the installation of solar panels pay for themselves after a number of years.
- It's better for the environment: If a large portion of people get their electricity from renewable sources, it would go a long way toward cutting down the emission of greenhouse gasses.
- Solar increases the value of your home: Not only will solar panels reduce your energy bills, but increase the value of your home, according to the US Department of Energy (PDF).
- Solar has big upfront costs: Solar power system installations can range in price from $10,000 to $30,000, which is a considerable amount of money, especially in a tight economy.
- Solar may not make sense for your home: If your home doesn't get a lot of sun or if your energy utility doesn't offer net metering, it may not make sense to install solar.
- It may require other work: Homeowners may have to remove tree limbs or fix their roofs before a solar system can be installed, adding more expense to a pricey project.
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