Another year, another global temperature record broken.
While many in the world anxiously await American action to combat climate change, voters and the media seem to have largely sacrificed the global crisis on the altar of political gridlock. It is accepted that nothing will be done by this Congress. Not by these legislators. But communities nationwide are taking it upon themselves to be the change they want to see in the world. That includes several Illinois communities leading the charge in educating business owners, homeowners and nonprofits about why now is a good time to go solar. They are taking the phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally” and putting it into action. In the process, they’re combatting climate change and fueling local job creation one roof at a time.
Across the country, communities are teaming up with local nonprofits, solar contractors and installers to increase solar energy generating systems in their neighborhoods. Solarize Portland utilized a rebate program called a “group buy” to pool the collective purchasing power of neighbors to complete 130 solar installations totaling 350 kw of capacity, enough electricity to fully power roughly 35 homes. The Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) hosted 25 “Power Hours,” solar informational sessions that educated 800 Minnesota residents about how solar technology works, its benefits, the factors to consider when deciding whether to go solar, where to start, and the financial incentives that make it easier to adopt. That effort resulted in 150 site assessments and numerous new installations. An ongoing MREA-led group buy in Milwaukee has already resulted in more than 100 kw of new installed solar (source: ht.ly/pAdv303Q1hF.) Inspired by these programs, and in coordination with the MREA, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana and Godfrey have all started similar projects right here in Illinois.
Solar Champaign-Urbana led 81 home and business owners to install 605 kw of new solar. In the Riverbend, the ongoing Solarize Godfrey program has educated more than 90 Godfrey residents and business owners, leading to approximately 50 kw of new solar installations, with more to come. The program is led by the Godfrey Climate Protection and Energy Efficiency Committee, with sponsorship and support from the Piasa Palisades Group of the Sierra Club, RiverBend Growth Association, Lewis and Clark Community College and the village of Godfrey. While the financial incentives can cover over 60 percent of a homeowner’s cost to go solar and even 100 percent for a business, for many proponents of these and similar programs, the environmental benefits are the prime motivator.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made clear, and the vast majority of climate scientists agree, that human activity is contributing to the rapidly warming planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, human economic activity has dramatically increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to a level unprecedented in the last 800,000 years. This has caused the climate to change at a pace unprecedented in the last 65 million years. Since 1880, the average land and ocean surface temperature has risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. To put into perspective how rapidly the problem continues to accelerate, all 10 of the hottest years on record since 1880 have happened since 1998 (source: ht.ly/qOoF303Q1sW). The single largest human economic activity that contributes to climate change is the production of electricity, and most of that activity involves burning fossil fuels.
Unlike coal, gas and other fossil fuel energy sources, solar panels do not emit greenhouse gases once they’re installed. There are no moving parts, and they provide clean energy for more than 25 years. Not only do they help combat climate change, they make our air easier to breathe and help to combat asthma as well. Madison County has historically had poor air quality, with asthma and lung cancer rates consistently higher than state and national averages. Any source of electricity that doesn’t spit greenhouse gases and pollution into the air is a positive for the environment and human health.
In addition to improved air quality and human health, these local actions mean local economic growth and job creation. As a result of community solar group purchase programs like Solarize Godfrey and other state and federal incentives, local solar installation company StraightUp Solar has been able to add well-trained and skilled individuals to their team as they sustain steady growth.
Aided by the wealth of local green building and renewable energy education programs, like those at Lewis and Clark Community College, they have been able to find a qualified workforce ready to add more solar energy to the region.
Adam Kiehna of Alton was hired by StraightUp Solar after visiting the Solarize Godfrey booth at the Riverbend Earth Day Festival earlier this year.
“I’m really interested in changing the way we power our country, and I was inspired to take a course in solar energy at Lewis and Clark Community College in pursuit of a job in the solar industry,” Kiehna said.
He has recently worked on the first several Solarize Godfrey installations to be added to residential and commercial rooftops across town.
“I like knowing I’m contributing to a better world, seeing the result of each day’s work in every new solar energy system,” he said.
Solar energy generating technology works by accessing the planet’s oldest, cleanest energy source — the sun. The same source of energy that makes life on earth possible also points the way to humanity’s energy future. Solar panels, typically made from silicon, absorb sun beams, and in the process, they cause a reaction that excites electrons. These electrons move across the panel into a wire. The action of electrons moving along a wire is what we think of as electrical current, or electricity. In the United States today, there are more than 29 gigawatts of installed solar generating capacity, enough to power 5.7 million homes. Solar energy represented 30 percent of new electric generating capacity brought on line last year, and represented 64 percent of all new capacity brought on line in the first quarter of 2016 (reference: ht.ly/mvaa303Q183.)
There is truly a solar boom occurring in this country as equipment and installation prices plummet and the technology becomes more efficient at harvesting sun beams from outer space.
Nathaniel Keener is the director of sustainability for Lewis and Clark Community College and chairperson of Godfrey’s Climate Protection and Energy Efficiency Committee.