Earlier this year, Germany toppled their own record for energy production using solar power, with daily output of 23.9 gigawatts. While Germany has spent the past several years topping records for solar power output, other central European nations like Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have been right at their heels, vying for the top spot.
The enormous amount of energy being generated in Germany comes from a vast number of solar systems installed across the country, numbering more than a million. In addition, according to Nation of Change, 8.5 million Germans are living and working in buildings harnessing sun power to offset their energy requirements.
With reports of wild success from European nations adopting solar power, it brings up an important question: Where is the United States?
The United States, a nation which is used to being on the cutting edge of developing and implementing new technologies, appears to be seriously lagging behind in the adoption of clean and renewable energies. The average American utility household consumed more than 11,000 kilowatt hours in 2011 according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and two-thirds of that power was generated by coal-fired power plants and natural gas processing plants. In contrast, 12 percent of the power generated came from clean or renewable sources, and solar energy only accounts for 0.11 percent of that total.
With large, vast areas of desert, prairies and grasslands, America seems like a prime candidate to take advantage of all the solar energy pummeling the Earth on a daily basis. However, that does not seem to have been happening.
According to Floyd Beaman, a graduate student studying renewable energy at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., the answer comes down to the factors of cost and incentives.
“As of now, solar isn’t cost-effective. It’s still cheaper to buy your energy from your local utility because in most places, they’re burning coal or natural gas for pennies on the dollar,” Beaman said. “The thing is, though, we’re still paying for it. In economics, we call it an externality. It’s an unpriced factor. We all breathe the same air and we all have to live on the same planet. Despite this, emissions still aren’t recognized as being part of the price we pay for using fossil fuels. And as long as we keep it this way, fossil fuels will continue to be cheap and will continue to be the preferred source of energy.”
One of the first places implementing widespread solar energy systems would make a difference for consumers are private residences. While gaining popularity, solar systems are still uncommon in many parts of the country. While it may be true you will see vast suburban developments in Phoenix taking advantage of their dry climate, the case may not be the same in many areas of the Midwest or northern regions of the U.S. Municipalities may put up a good deal of financing for up-front costs of solar arrays in parts of the country, but in others, consumers are on their own.
Homeowner Derek Morse recently purchased his first house with his wife in Milton, Wash., a suburb in the Seattle area. He said while he did investigate his options for solar panels, the cost was too much to make it viable. “It was something I took a look at when we first bought the house, but I don’t have to drop. I know there are tax credits, but it’s one more thing to finance when there are a bunch of other expenses,” he said.
While new homeowners are eligible for tax credits and incentives, many people are not aware of what they are, and many change from state to state. Beaman said the incentives offered by the government are there, but have been unsuccessful, even though they may end up giving large returns to homeowners. “The U.S. has a tax incentive, which so far, doesn’t seem to be working. Some states, like Washington, are providing net-metering incentives similar to a feed-in-tariff, which basically means the utilities buy back the excess energy at higher than retail rate. In Washington, this ranges from double to seven times above retail rate, with some homes making a year,” he said.
For now, it seems the biggest hurdle to get property owners into the solar arena is the high entry price. Once technologies improve and the price of production comes down, more reasonable retail options will become available. When that happens, solar will be worth taking another look at for homeowners like Morse.
“Price is the biggest thing. My electric bills aren’t crazy high. It’s just my wife and I. We don’t have a ton of electricity consumption. In the future I would definitely look into it, later down the road. I imagine with future much more competition and new technologies, and the price will drop,” Morse said.
So what’s it going to take for the United States to start matching up with its European counterparts in terms of renewable energy production? Beaman says he doesn’t see it happening in the near future, but things are on the right track. “Although incentives and rebates do bring the price down a bit, it won’t be several years until solar can compete head-on with fossil fuels. I’ve seen it mentioned within the next 15-20 years,” he said.
With investors and innovators starting to see there is great opportunity in renewable and clean energies, the trend is bound to pick up steam. An example is Elon Musk, founder of electric car company Tesla, and the man behind the recently announced “Hyperloop” transportation system. Homebuilders and construction companies will also be jumping on board with more stringent building codes being implemented as well, although they may be resistant.
“Some people have caught on and realized there’s money to be made. Some, I’d like to think, are doing it because they know it’s the right direction. But mostly, builders don’t even like it when new building codes come out with small energy efficient upgrades, I doubt many will willingly embrace energy efficiency unless they have to. That is, unless it becomes a part of our building codes. Which, keep an eye out, there’s talk of all new homes being zero-energy by 2030 in Washington,” Beaman said.
If the United States hopes to keep up with worldwide trends towards sustainable energy, Beaman may be correct in that it will be an uphill battle. But with increased investment in research and development coupled with more consumer interest, big change may not be far off.