Can Solar Save the World?


Could installing solar panels on a Santa Cruz home really be part of a massive energy revolution that will bring an end to the fossil fuel era?

The worldwide transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy is under way. As fossil fuel resources shrink, as air pollution worsens, and as concerns about climate instability cast a shadow over the future of coal, oil and natural gas, a new world energy economy is emerging. The old economy, fueled largely by coal and oil, is being replaced with one powered by solar and wind energy.
—Lester Brown, sustainable energy pioneer and author of “The Great Transition”

By Eric Johnson

For people who care about the planet, there's been bad news for a very long time. Global warming worsens as other environmental catastrophes seem to pile up. Meanwhile, as a result, we have witnessed the spread of a crippling, if understandable, hopelessness.

But over the past couple of years, and especially in recent months, there's been a lot of good news—really good news.

Environmentalists who’ve demanded that political leaders step up to confront global warning are finally starting to get what they wanted. And optimists who believed that technology could advance quickly enough to allow us to abandon fossil fuels and shift to a sustainable economy—in our lifetimes—are being proven right.

Somehow, the story of this profound shift isn’t widely known. Maybe people think it’s too good to be true.

The Revolution is On

In early August, Pres. Barack Obama announced his Clean Power Plan, accurately calling it "the biggest, most important step we've ever taken to combat climate change." The plan contains potent incentives for states to deploy renewable energy technologies and calls on the EPA¬—for the first time ever—to require states to meet specific carbon pollution standards.

Without a doubt, both the carrot and the stick contained in this plan will be an enormous boon to the clean energy industry, which is already doing much better than many people know.

The shift toward solar, wind and other sustainable energy sources is growing fast. And it isn’t just environmentalists who are in on the movement. Over the past decade, big investors have been pouring tens of billions of dollars into renewable energy.

The likes of Goldman Sachs, Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, and Google, have invested tens of billions of dollars to build massive solar arrays and wind farms throughout the country. Meanwhile, the number of Americans choosing to take matters in their own hands and turn their own rooftops into solar power plants is growing exponentially. By next year, solar will be the fastest-growing new source of energy in the country.

Bill McKibben, the crusading environmentalist and author of 1989’s The End of Nature—and until very recently nobody’s idea of an optimist—had this to say in a June, 2015 article in The New Yorker:

“The numbers reveal a sudden new truth—that innovative, energy-saving and energy-producing technology is now cheap enough for everyday use.

“The energy revolution, instead of happening piecemeal, over decades, could take place fast enough to actually help an overheating planet.”

It’s Not Too Late

Recent news makes McKibben’s prediction even more likely. A few days before Obama announced his Clean Power Plan, Hillary Clinton revealed her vision of a solar-powered future. By the end of her first term, she said, the nation would have seven times more solar capacity than it does today. She vowed that a half-million American homes would be generating their own power.

If that sounds like pie in the sky, consider this: One company, SolarCity, already has installed solar panels on more than 220,000 homes.

“We’re almost halfway to Hillary’s goal ourselves,” says Doug Hull, SolarCity’s Santa Cruz-based field energy consultant. “And we think we can do a lot better.”

The ambitious projections issued when SolarCity went public, in 2012, called for a million solar homes by 2018. Yes—that’s twice the growth Hillary predicts. In half the time.

There’s reason to believe SolarCity will do it. In 2012 the San Mateo-based company had 50,000 customers. To reach its goal, it would have to grow by the unthinkably rapid rate of 65 percent per year. It has since grown by 98 percent per year.

According to Investopedia: “If the company were actually able to maintain this breakneck pace all the way out to 2018, SolarCity could be looking at a customer base closer to 3 million than its stated goal of 1 million.”

Big Vision

SolarCity is helping more Americans go solar than anyone, having rapidly grown to be the largest installer of rooftop panels in the nation. The company accomplished this with a suite of innovations that eliminate the friction that can make a big change tricky.

There’s another reason to believe that the company will be able to deliver on its promise. SolarCity is the brainchild of Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX—all companies that successfully disrupted entrenched industries. He is the chairman of the company, which is run by his cousins Peter and Lyndon Rive.

Hull, a former business lecturer at Cal State Monterey Bay, joined SolarCity partly because of his admiration of Musk, whom he compares to Steve Jobs.

“His innovations are changing the way people live,” Hull says, “changing the way they drive, changing the way they get their power.”

Hull was also motivated by a personal desire to do something that mattered to him personally.

“The essence of my message to my CSUMB students was, ‘You need to figure out who you are,” he says, “not just think about finding a job. You need to find something that moves you.’ At the same time I was talking to them about climate change and global warming, encouraging them to choose some kind of work that would make a difference in the world. I decided to take my own advice.

“We are in as big a transition now as we were when we shifted from horses to cars,” Hull says. “We are moving away from fossil fuels to renewables. That is a very big deal.”

Change Made Easy

SolarCity has found its edge, the thing that has made it the biggest and fastest growing company in the market, by making solar energy affordable. In addition to technological innovations, the company devised a very simple solution to the main barrier that has prevented consumers from going solar. With SolarCity, there is no upfront cost, and there’s a guarantee that users’ energy bills will be less than they are paying now.

The zero-dollars-down plan is made possible because SolarCity finances the installation itself. The company has also integrated every other aspect of the process, from design and installation to monitoring the system after it’s up and running. Hull and the rest of the sales team even handle permitting. All of this vaults SolarCity from industry leader to macroeconomic catalyst.

SolarCity is making the transition to sustainable energy cheaper than living with the deadly status quo. That is a big deal.

Follow this link to find out how you can switch to solar immediately.


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