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Solar
Credit: Jaime Stilling

Solar

Call to action:

Rapidly expand the use of solar energy as the primary source for electricity and heating.

Solar is key to phasing out fossil fuels and accelerating the electrification of everything. It can be our primary source of heating and electricity. There are two basic types of solar technology: solar thermal, which captures the sun’s heat for both electricity and heating; and photovoltaic (PV), which converts sunlight into electricity. Solar technology’s costs have fallen steeply in recent years while efficiency has risen. Solar employs millions of people and provides clean energy around the world, from steel mills, to solar farms, to households in big cities and remote villages. Accelerating’s solar share from its current 3 percent of global electricity production will require adoption at every level, including households, offices, schools, corporations, institutions, and governments.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn why solar can become the primary source of energy. In 2020, solar became the least expensive form of electricity in most of the world. There have been major advances in cell and panel efficiency. Average commercial solar panels today perform at 20 percent efficiency, up from 12 percent just a decade ago. Solar thermal is used in rooftop solar water heaters and massive power plants located in remote areas. Solar PV generates electricity worldwide through community, residential, commercial, and utility-scale projects, both on land and on water.

Join, start, or support a community solar project. Sometimes called solar gardens, a community solar project is a large, central solar power plant whose electricity is shared across properties. Participants can choose between shared ownership or a subscription to an offsite solar array and typically receive an electric bill credit generated by their share of the community solar system.

Install Do-It-Yourself solar. If you live in a remote area or somewhere without professional installation options or are looking to power small spaces (such as sheds, vans, and tiny homes), DIY solar could be a good option.

  • Determine whether a DIY project is right for your space with this pro-and-con guide.
  • This learning hub website covers all basics of DIY solar.
  • Follow the six-step process for installation in this guide.
  • Here is an example of a commercial solar panel kit.

Advocate for solar where you live, work, and study. Here are a few examples and resources to get started:

Groups

Homeowners

Install solar PV panels at home. Solar panels can save (and make) money and increase home resale value. Your path to installing solar will differ based on your location. Research local manufacturers, installers, licensers, and incentives for your area. Here are some common first steps:

  • Determine whether your home is a good candidate for solar. This guide walks you through the steps to assess whether solar PV panels will be right for your home. Many solar companies will do an assessment for free. Those based in the U.S. or Puerto Rico can enter their address here to make many of these calculations automatically.
  • Evaluate your energy use and select the appropriate system. Use this step-by-step guide to determine the type of solar system best for you.
  • Pick a reputable provider. See Key Players below for a list of some of the top solar companies worldwide and follow these ten tips.
  • Save on installation. Explore local and federal government incentives and collective purchasing options, or join a solar co-op. This guide can help you vet installers to find the best ones in your area.
  • Look into long-term financial incentives. Find out whether your local government offers feed-in tariffs—a policy that pays above-market rate for any excess energy your panels contribute to the central power grid.
  • Don’t forget the small stuff. Not quite ready for rooftop panels? Start small with solar-powered outdoor lights, including garden lights, holiday lights, and motion-sensor security lights.

Install a solar water heater. There are three primary types of solar water heaters to consider. Two are active, absorbing the sun’s warmth via rooftop collectors and transferring its heat directly to your household water. The other is passive, using heat pumps to pull solar heat out of the air to increase your water temperature (see Heat Pumps Nexus).

  • Find a guide to getting started here
  • This guide describes the steps required to install a solar water heater.

Recycle old solar panels (and advocate for recycling programs). PV panels typically last for twenty-five to thirty years. They could create as much as 80 million tons of waste by 2050. Instead, we could recycle materials worth $2 billion from panels as they are retired. While panel recycling programs are not common, they are on the rise. Look for local recycling and reuse options. Background information on recycling solar is provided by the EPA. See Governance below to learn about the regulations needed to establish recycling worldwide.

  • German researchers have made solar cells from recycled silicon.
  • French startup ROSI Solar plans to open a new recycling plant in Grenoble before the end of 2022.
  • We Recycle Solar in Arizona provides large-scale solar panel disposal and recycling for manufacturers, installers, and solar contractors.

Designers and Engineers

Develop new ways to use solar PV and thermal energy. Creativity and innovation are critical to expanding solar adoption. In addition to technological advances, building diverse teams, such as this residency with craftswomen from Mozambique and designers from the Netherlands, is essential to meet culturally specific needs. Here are examples:

  • Solar-powered cars are entering the marketplace.
  • Solar shingles can be applied directly to the roof of a home or building, replacing traditional roofing materials.
  • Mesh-grids and other smart solar technologies link homes and businesses in underserved communities.
  • A solar cell has been developed that can generate electricity at night, creating the opportunity for continuous solar energy.
  • Solar-powered cold storage is available to farmers in Nigeria.
  • A solar-powered sports stadium in Taiwan is the largest in the world.
  • Solar bricks generate electricity in building facades. A test installation on a 7,000-square-foot wall is expected to produce 90,000 kilowatt-hours annually.
  • Bifacial solar panels in this Greece solar park can generate one third more energy than conventional single-sided panels.
  • Dust-repellent solar panels inspired by the lotus leaf’s self-cleaning properties can help improve the efficiency of desert solar farms.
  • Still in its experimental phases, the first transparent solar cell could be used for windows that generate electricity with invisible solar technology.
  • This window-mounted solar charger is the size of a textbook and can charge small devices like cell phones, smart watches, and bike lights.
  • Solar pool heaters are one of the most cost-effective uses of solar energy in some climates.
  • Solar paint, still in its early phases of development, can be applied to any paintable surface to generate electricity.

Donors and Investors

Fund solar projects in underserved communities. Renewable electricity is needed for the 840 million people worldwide who don’t have access. Many countries are being left behind in the global renewable energy push and more efforts are required to address this inequality. Here is a report from the Rockefeller Foundation on how to end energy poverty.

  • Solar Sister invests in women’s clean energy businesses in off-grid communities in Africa. Over 6,800 Solar Sister entrepreneurs have reached three million people in Africa with clean energy.
  • A village in Brazil is running 132 solar panels as part of a pilot project funded by Sustainable Amazon Foundation and Unicoba.
  • The Inter-American Development Bank partnered with a local utility to finance their large-scale hybrid solar and thermal plant in Nicaragua.
  • The Honnold Foundation installed a 15-kilowatt solar array for an all-girls school in Liberia, reducing energy costs by 90 percent.
  • ZubaBox converts shipping containers into portable, solar-powered classrooms that have been used in remote areas and refugee camps.
  • In South Sudan, UNICEF has installed solar-powered water systems that are providing people in remote communities with access to clean water.

Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Landowners

Build a solar PV farm on your property for extra income. Leasing land for use as a solar farm can offer a source of stable income from your land while helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Find tips for farmers, ranchers, and landowners to leverage solar leasing as a way to generate income.
  • Learn key land requirements to start a solar farm, including parcel size, land condition, infrastructure proximity, local policy, and flooding potential.
  • Review the legal aspects, including property and water rights, critical title problems, and statutory solar easement requirements.

Power your farm or ranch with solar energy. As costs of solar technology fall and efficiency rises, more agricultural enterprises are converting to renewable sources to power their day-to-day operations. The U.S. Energy Department’s Farmer’s Guide to Going Solar can help you get started.

Integrate agrivoltaic systems in your operations. Agrivoltaics is a farming method that integrates solar power generation and food production. Here are examples and resources to get started:

Indigenous Communities

Install solar PV and thermal to foster energy independence. Indigenous groups are leveraging solar power to disengage from historically exploitative energy generation systems. These efforts are creating jobs for Indigenous youth, building resilience to climate-related outages and creating revenue.

  • In the cloud forests of northern Puebla, Mexico, an Indigenous cooperative is training youth to install solar panels in their communities.
  • Residents of the Iltjiltajarri Aboriginal community in central Australia have switched from trucking in diesel to powering their lights, freezers, and air conditioners with rooftop solar and batteries.
  • 8th Fire Solar is an Anishinaabe-owned-and-operated company building solar thermal panels for homes and small businesses in North America.
  • On the Hawaiian island of Moloka‘i, Ho‘ahu Energy Cooperative is working with the state utility to establish a community-based renewable energy project that serves 50 percent of the island’s energy demand with solar panels.
  • Leaders of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, Ojibwe, and Standing Rock Sioux tribes launched the Indigenized Energy Initiative, a first-of-its-kind effort to empower tribes to achieve energy independence.
  • See Key Players below for a list of Indigenous-led organizations.

City and State Officials

Integrate PV and thermal solar into operations and public spaces. Local governments around the world are switching to solar, saving money, and building community in the process. The U.S. Energy Department’s Local Government Guide for Solar Deployment can help you get started. Here is a toolkit for a perspective from the commercial solar sector.

Companies

Power operations with solar. Commercial PV solar—which refers to a range of projects, from small businesses to hospitals—can amplify the benefits of solar on a larger scale than residential projects.

  • Retrofit for solar on-site at your workplace. Start with this guide to understand benefits, incentives, and financing.
  • Four of Google's newest office buildings in California are covered in ninety thousand plates capturing solar energy. These “dragonscales” will meet 40 percent of the buildings’ electricity needs.
  • Tesla’s Gigafactory will be the world’s largest building, powered by the world’s largest rooftop solar array.
  • IKEA, which now sells solar panels for households, allows buyers to track their own production in an app and to sell back surplus electricity.

Provide solar energy resources as a benefit for employees. Particularly in the age of remote work, solar discounts have become an employee benefit. Companies can also offer solar education lunch-and-learns.

Governance

Pass legislation that accelerates solar expansion. This toolkit provides an overview of policies for governments to consider. Here is an overview of federal and state policies affecting solar energy development in the U.S. The United Nations has a Plan of Action to accelerate clean energy around the world. While effective policies will vary across contexts, here are a few key recommendations:

  • Start with a national energy transition plan, which was the foundation for the successful switch to renewables in the German municipality Wildpoldsried.
  • Work directly with Indigenous people for consultation, consent, and compensation when considering new solar projects on ancestral lands or land to which Indigenous people have been displaced. Indigenous leaders can reference this toolkit on free, prior, and informed consent.
  • Use Renewable Portfolio Standards to require utilities to sell a specified percentage or amount of renewable electricity.
  • Implement net metering or feed-in tariffs—policy tools that pay small-scale energy producers (such as homeowners with solar panels) at or above market price for the power they deliver to the grid.
  • Subsidize rooftop solar through state and federal budgets to avoid utilities offsetting lost revenue by raising electricity rates (which can cause problems for lower-income residents, as it has in California).
  • Use rebates, leasing, and other financial incentives to reduce upfront costs, lowering the barrier of entry for home and small-business solar.
  • Mandate solar water heaters for residential, commercial, and public buildings. Israel’s residential mandates have led to 85 percent of households getting their hot water from a dud shemesh, or “sun boiler.”
  • Pass legislation to enable community choice aggregation (CCA), which allows a town or municipality to aggregate its electricity demand and buy its power directly from an alternative supplier.
  • Require all new commercial buildings to have green rooftops or solar panels, as France has done.
  • Foster international cooperation to share solar energy across borders, as the proposed Sun Cable project seeks to do between Australia and Asia.
  • Mandate efficiency goals for publicly funded construction projects (rather than requiring a percentage of expenditure for solar, which has proved ineffective in Oregon).
  • Use this policy road map to help ensure affordable clean energy by closing the solar equity gap.

Fund PV and thermal solar research, implementation, and workforce development. Invest in expanding the solar workforce through retraining programs for fossil fuel workers and military veterans. Center diversity as part of workforce expansion. Governments can finance advancement of up-and-coming solar technologies. Solar Villages Initiatives Act gives microenterprise assistance for renewable energy projects in developing countries.

Regulate solar building and recycling. Solar hardware manufacturing and recycling require better regulation to protect the environment and human rights. Implement protections for workers and consider having producers finance the takeback and recycling of solar panels, as the E.U. has done.

Learn

Listen

Watts Up (GRNE Solar)

Sheep + Solar: A Love Story (How to Save a Planet)

Solar Maverick (Benoy Thanjan)

Shine On (SolarPower Europe)

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