• Tiana Starks

The state of residential solar power

Don’t panic, but we will need to generate approximately 15TW of usable energy from renewable (carbon-neutral) sources by 2050 in order to stabilize the atmospheric CO2 concentration. And purely in terms of available energy, solar power has the greatest potential for meeting this requirement.

Solar is “probably the only long-term supply-side energy solution that is both large enough and acceptable enough to sustain the planet’s long term requirements,” according to Richard Perez, senior research associate at the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at SUNY-Albany. Perez’ analysis includes geothermal, wind, all other significant renewable sources, nuclear fission, and all forms of fossil fuels.

So while wind, hydropower, and geothermal extraction may work well on a local or regional scale in certain areas, today the potential of solar exceeds any other renewable energy source by several orders of magnitude. It’s simply the only contender, besides nuclear power, for a global solution to supply civilization with the massive amount of energy it demands.

On average, the power from the Sun striking the Earth’s surface is 175 W/m2. If we assume that 10 percent of this incident solar energy could be converted to electricity, supplying the energy used by the United States would require covering roughly two percent of the land in the US with solar cells—that’s roughly the area of North Dakota. Since this is about 30 times our available roof space, supplying the grid with electricity from the Sun means building large solar farms.

However, that doesn’t diminish the usefulness of some panels on your roof. If you own your home, you have the potential to make your own electricity. You can reduce or eliminate your dependence on the power company—maybe even sell your surplus power back to it, reducing your costs further, or perhaps even turning a profit.

Given the recent change of federal leadership, it’s likely a time of great uncertainty for large US solar initiatives. But individual organizations, businesses, and even citizens can still make decisions for themselves about embracing solar to a greater extent. To get a better idea about the current state of residential-scale solar power in the United States, Ars has been looking at the practicalities, the economics, and the experiences of some people who have recently turned their houses into tiny electrical generating stations. Hopefully, even if you live in a basement apartment, you might find the findings… illuminating.

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