Humans have been converting the sun’s rays into other forms of energy since the 7th century BC, when bent glass was used with wood to start fires. Today, the state of the solar power industry is no doubt more advanced, with new technology coming online every year.
In fact, if you investigated solar more than a couple of years ago and it didn’t meet your energy needs or make economic sense at the time, conditions have changed significantly. Cheaper energy storage technology, improved solar panel efficiency, higher gas and oil prices, a rejuvenated and expanded solar tax credit, and other advancements have transformed the effectiveness and economics of solar.
Solar farms, i.e., large arrays of solar panels on tracts of farmland, have been around for years, but they’re continually gaining in popularity. Farmers recognize the benefits of diversifying their land use and gaining a steady income on a portion of their property. Combining agriculture with voltaics – electricity production – is farm-friendly in another sense. Solar developers design solar arrays that benefit shade-friendly crops, grow grasses for grazing animals or pollinating plants for bees and butterflies to complement the rest of the land’s use.
It’s a symbiotic relationship because plants protected from the sun by the panels need less water while the panels keep crops warmer at night by blocking the escaping heat. Conversely, the crops absorb heat during the day, cooling the back of the solar array and increasing its efficiency.
Solar Farms on Brownfields
Brownfields are properties previously used for industrial or commercial purposes that have been contaminated, often with various types of toxic waste. These sites are generally undevelopable unless remediated, often an expensive and time-consuming proposition.
Repurposing brownfields as solar farm locations brings these sites full circle by taking an industrial waste dump and converting it into a renewable energy site that is kind to the planet. Moreover, brownfields are often located near low-income communities lacking access to renewable power. Installing solar farms on them promotes inexpensive environmental sustainability for these communities. Employing brownfields in this way has a lot of potential because most urban municipalities have numerous such sites sitting unproductive otherwise.
Businesses Going Solar
The early adopters of solar power were homeowners and large-scale operations run by utilities. Now businesses are beginning to see both the increasing cost benefits of an investment in low-cost solar power and the increased business resilience from a sustainable power supply. Increasingly, the imperative of a reduced carbon footprint appeals to businesses as a demonstration to customers and employees of its commitment to a healthier planet.
A Revitalized Tax Credit
Another reason businesses may be inclined to forge ahead with a solar conversion is the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which was recently bumped back up to 30% by federal legislation. Included in the new law is a refund for non-profits that previously couldn’t benefit from a tax credit and the ability to apply the credit to batteries, which are beneficial elements for some commercial solar applications. Taken together, these credits can tip a project over the edge to a wise investment on purely economic terms.
California’s law mandating rooftop solar photovoltaic systems be equipped on all new homes built starting in 2020 has also had an impact on businesses. The demand for solar created by these two laws is increasing competition in the industry, driving improvements in technology, effectiveness and efficiency, and declines in price. The ripple effect is increasing the viability of solar for commercial use.
For businesses that can’t make the investment in solar or that don’t own their buildings, community solar can be a great alternative. Community solar requires enabling legislation from each state that directs local utilities to accept power from solar farms and direct it to customers who opt-in. Community solar is currently available mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, though more states are considering it. Alder Energy is an active community solar developer in Maryland.
The way community solar works is this: a solar company builds a solar farm and offers the electricity it produces to nearby subscribers. They agree to join the community and benefit from solar without the upfront investment. Those who subscribe effectively reduce their carbon footprint and lower their electric bills, usually by 10%-15%.
While some utilities have fought these arrangements, the popularity of solar power across the country is beginning to whittle away at that opposition. Expect to see more community solar in your state in coming years.
Solar power is both the present and the future, particularly as it increases in efficiency and battery storage solutions improve.