6 Ways to Spark the Clean Energy Revolution

November 15, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThis week Filipino diplomat Yeb Sano moved an international delegation to a standing ovation and many to tears as he issued an emotional plea to world leaders to take meaningful action on climate change as his country dug itself out of the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. Since so little has been accomplished through international climate talks over the last decade, it’s easy to dismiss that avenue as a lost cause.

It may not be a lost cause, but it is most definitely a slow one. Thankfully, it’s not the only way to push the needle forward on climate action. We already know it’s technically possible to make much greater gains in renewable energy, so what’s stopping us?

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar have made big leaps in the last few years, with installation prices falling and demand increasing. But we’re still miles away from where we need to be. So, what can we do to help renewable energy take off in the U.S.? Zachary Shahan, editor of CleanTechnica, has some ideas.

1. Feed in Tariffs

Feed in tariffs (or FITs) are more common in Europe than the U.S., but we’d do well to make them commonplace, especially anywhere the renewable market is still working to gain a foothold. “A FIT program typically guarantees that customers who own a FIT-eligible renewable electricity generation facility, such as a roof-top solar photovoltaic system, will receive a set price from their utility for all of the electricity they generate and provide to the grid,” explains the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

There are a limited number of states in the U.S. using FITs but Dominion Virginia Power will soon be employing a voluntary one for solar photovoltaic systems owned by residential or commercial customers. Here’s what it’s offering: For five years PV owners participating in the program will recieve 15 cents/kilowatthour for electricty provided to the grid from their solar panels; and participants will pay whatever the retail rate is for the electricity they use, which is currently about 10.5 cents/kWh for residential and 7.8 cents/ kWh for commercial customers.

There are other bonuses, too. “One of the wonderful things about FITs is that they enable the renewable energy revolution to be democratized more than almost any other policy,” Shahan told AlterNet. “Also, they can very simply make up for the unpriced externalities of dirty energy sources—decision-makers can just add that missing price into the rates given to renewable energy producers.”

2. Net Metering

Along the same lines as FITs, net metering offers money back to solar owners when they add their electricity to the grid. “While this may often be lower than what is offered through FITs, the policy is implemented in a more stable and long-term fashion, and it still goes a long way in helping owners of renewable energy systems to get their investments back and eventually make money off of their systems,” explains Shahan. “Also, being one of the simplest policies out there, it’s easy to explain, easy to replicate, and hard to deny." Currently, 43 states in the U.S. have net metering.

3. Solar Leasing

Can’t afford to buy solar panels or don’t want to pay the up-front costs? Solar leasing provides another option. It “allows people to go solar and save money on their electric bills from day one without having to put much (if any) money down and without having to deal with a bank or loan,” said Shahan. “People are very, very attracted to this model, and it dominates in the places where it exists, often accounting for 75 percent or more of the residential solar market.” Solar leasing programs currently exist in California, Arizona, Oregon, Texas, Colorado, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.

4. Solar Gardens

If leasing doesn’t float your boat and you can’t put solar on the roof of you house, here’s another option. In Taos, New Mexico, Kit Carson Electric Co-op, the town’s electricity provider has teamed up with Clean Energy Collective to offer customers a chance to buy panels at a central location to offset their energy bills. As the Taos News reports:

For $845, co-op customers can buy one of 420 panels that will offset their energy use and reduce their monthly cost of electricity. The co-op initially planned to own and operate the community solar project itself, but it was recently handed off to Clean Energy Collective based in Carbondale, Colo. Clean Energy Collective will own the array and sell individual panels. The co-op has agreed to buy power from the array for the next 20 years.

Those who buy a panel won’t literally be getting solar-powered electrons pumped straight to their home or business. Instead, panel owners are credited for the energy their portion of the array puts into the co-op’s grid every month.

The Taos project is just one of many community solar projects. Find more at the Solar Gardens Institute.

5. Cleaner Transportation

If you live in a city and you are able to bike or walk, do it. The fewer cars we have choking up city streets the better. But that also means we need to continue to plan our cities to be safer for both bikes and pedestrians. If you need a little extra help getting from A to B or up some steep hills, check out an electric bike (and coming soon, electric back wheels to power your bicycle). Ride an electric bike and you’ll feel like Superman—plug it in to your solar PVs at home, and you’ve earned yourself the right to wear a cape.

Depending on where you live (outside the realm of existing or decent public transit) and your physical ability, you may be stuck needing a car to get around. Or maybe you just like driving. "I think that cars will be a big part of society indefinitely and need to be much cleaner,” said Shahan, who is in favor of electric cars.

“They’re better than gasmobiles in almost every way. They have better pickup. They drive more smoothly. They are much quieter,” he says. “They are much greener, and do not emit any pollution near the consumer/driver. They are much simpler and require much less maintenance. And many are also cheaper than their gas cousins over the lifetime of ownership, something that will become more and more common. As people come to realize that electric cars are on the road and so much better than gasmobiles, sales will take off. They’re already starting to.”

This doesn’t mean that everyone should run out and buy one. We need more electric options for car sharing and Shahan says he forsees the leasing of electric cars taking off. “Elon Musk, who is the CEO and chairman of Tesla Motors (the world’s leading electric car company) and also the chairman of SolarCity (a leading solar leasing company), has stated that he thinks electric cars will go this leasing route, just as solar has. It matches the reality of how most consumers approach purchases.”

In order for electric cars to truly help support clean energy, we need to be plugging them in to renewable power sources, so their development goes hand-in-hand with PV on our roofs, solar gardens in our communities and clean power plants.

6. Democratiziation of Energy

One of the most important ways for clean energy to be successful is to get everyone involved. Crowdfunding renewable projects is just getting started with organizations like Mosaic where anyone can invest in a solar project.

But to go the distance it will take putting power, and the decisions about how we get and use our power, into the hands of the people. “Both solar PV and electric cars help the average person to become producers and owners of the energy they use,” said Shahan. “They help to democratize the entire energy industry. The ramifications are immense. They are probably beyond our imagination. This process, though just beginning, is already having a paradigm-shifting effect in some locations, such as solar-leading Germany and Australia. But we’re just at the beginning. The democratization of the energy system is coming like a slow but very powerful wave, and it is going to change the world.”

Tara Lohan

Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.

Tags: community energy projects, electric cars, feed-in tariffs, net metering, Renewable Energy