When It Comes To Solar Power, Small Scale Is Beautiful

In my years writing about energy it’s always the big projects that seem to excite people — both readers and the PR people pitching you stories for their clients. It’s hardly unnatural. A planned gigawatt-sized concentrating solar power plant, with a massive central tower, photographed (more likely Photoshopped) with rays of streaming potentiality bounced towards it by a veritable sea of of mirrors, is indeed a stirring sight.

But, in the words of E.F. Schumacher, small is beautiful — especially when it comes to solar power.

On rooftops, over parking lots, in backyards, on farms, on commercial rooftops, we need a massive build out of solar power — owned by individuals, cooperatives, small companies, not traditional utilities. Germany has already been doing this, where over half of its world-leading solar power capacity is owned by citizens and farmers. It’s here that we ought to be investing our time, energy, and resources before we go covering new land with solar panels and heliostats.

After all, unlike wind power (which is usually best well outside of densely developed areas), the sun shines equally well on top of places we’ve already built on, where we already live, work, and do business, as it does far away from where the power is needed.

Over 300 Gigawatts of Power Waiting on Our Rooftops – And That’s Just the Top 10 States

Just looking at the United States, recent research from the Solar Energy Industries Association shows that there’s huge rooftop solar power potential waiting to be tapped.

California leads the nation, with 76 gigawatts, just on the roof of buildings. Texas trails a bit with 60 GW — especially remarkable considering how much of the state, particularly in the western half is barely developed at all, much wilderness or rangeland. Florida has 49 GW of potential rooftop solar power; Ohio has 27 GW; Illinois 26 GW; Georgia and New 25 GW each; North Carolina 23 GW; Michigan and Pennsylvania each have 22 GW.

Right now, California is using a bit over a gigawatt of that potential, with some 626,000 homes having solar power. Arizona, the sunniest state in the nation, though not making the top-10 list of most solar potential (there’s a lot of largely undeveloped desert there…), has solar on about 139,000 homes, for a total of 710 megawatts.

Those are some really big numbers in total, but to bring them from the potential to actual, a huge amount of individual action must take place.

Even then, not all of that potential can easily be accessed, or accessed at all. Consider the case of New York City, where I live. There are thousands of rooftops without solar power here, just on the island of Manhattan, but just taking the residential ones, there are logistical hurdles to be leapt.

For example, my building, which has 24 separate apartments in it, wants to install solar panels. We even have the roof space to probably generate enough electricity for everyone in the building. But due to the way the electricity is metered in the building, a smaller system will be installed, enough to cover the electricity used in the common areas of the building and the exterior lights. There’s no way we could actually meter electricity right now for each unit, how much of the solar power we could produce was going to my apartment versus my neighbors.

But let’s not focus too much on these hurdles. More places in the nation won’t have my particular problem than will.

The point here isn’t to give an overview of everything you need to know to buy solar panels for your home. There are plenty of resources for that. But instead I want to highlight some interesting alternatives to just buying solar panels.

From his home in New York City, Mat McDermott writes about energy and resource consumption, environmental ethics, climate change, issues of animal welfare and animal consciousness, and the response of religious communities to environmental problems. He was editor of business, politics, and energy content for TreeHugger.com from 2008 though 2012. Beyond writing, Mat is an Advisor for The Bhumi Project, a Hindu environmental organization based in the UK, affiliated with the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.