Solar Energy

Number of Solar Workers in the United States

Number of Solar Workers in the United States

Source: National Solar Foundation, National Solar Jobs Census 2012 [1]

In the last few decades, technological leaps and the scaled-up production of solar panels have made solar power dramatically less expensive. What started as a technology used to power satellites, telescopes, and other vehicles in outer space is now used in homes, office buildings and warehouses, and even in the form of solar farms covering acres of land. By the end of the decade, solar energy could become cheaper than conventional electricity in many parts of the country, and the continued growth of the industry could create hundreds of thousands of American jobs.[2]

How Solar Power Works

solar panel installation

The solar industry has already created 100,000 American jobs and its continued growth could create hundreds of thousands more

The sun's energy can be captured to generate electricity or heat through a system of panels or mirrors.

  • Solar, or photovoltaic, cells convert sunlight directly into electricity. Most photovoltaic cells are made primarily of silicon, the material used in computer semiconductor chips, and arranged on rectangular panels. When sunlight hits a cell, the energy knocks electrons free of their atoms, allowing them to flow through the material. The resulting DC (direct current) electricity is then sent to a power inverter for conversion to AC (alternating current), which is the form in which electric power is delivered to homes and businesses.
  • Solar thermal collectors use heat-absorbing panels and a series of attached circulation tubes to heat water or buildings.
  • Solar concentration systems use mirrors -- usually arranged in a series of long, parabolic troughs, a large round dish, or a circle surrounding a "power tower" -- to focus the sun's reflected rays on a heat-collecting element. The concentrated sunlight heats water or a heat-transferring fluid such as molten salt to generate steam, which is then used conventionally to spin turbines and generate electricity.
  • Passive solar design is the creative use of windows, skylights and sunrooms, building site and orientation, and thermal construction materials to heat and light buildings, or to heat water, the natural way.

Where Solar Energy Is Used

sunlight and green leaf

The Long Island Solar Farm produces enough electricity to power nearly 4,500 homes, and created more than 200 construction jobs

New commercial concentrating solar power plants are being built throughout the Southwest, but solar power can be used wherever the sun shines. The 32-megawatt Long Island Solar Farm at Brookhaven National Laboratory, currently the largest solar farm on the East Coast, produces enough electricity annually to power nearly 4,500 homes. The project created more than 200 locally sourced construction jobs and maintains two full-time workers for operations and maintenance.[3]

Homeowners, farms and businesses across the country are installing solar panels to reduce their electric bills. Many farms and businesses, with their open acreage and/or large buildings, can install enough solar to pay their entire electric bill, or at least reduce costly summer electricity rates, which is often the case for northern states.

In Canton, Minnesota, Philip and Mary Rutter built a solar-powered greenhouse without ever connecting it to the grid, as that would have required them to clear trees, dedicate land and lose productive potential. Instead, they spent $5,600 to create a structure that is partially subterranean, superinsulated with south-facing windows and fully powered -- including lights, fans, water pump and retractable insulating shutters -- by six photovoltaic panels and a small wind turbine. The Rutters expect the energy savings to recoup their costs in ten years, and in the meantime they realize tax benefits by financing the energy system within their mortgage and depreciating it as business equipment.

How Much Solar Energy Costs

Experts predict the cost of solar power will drop below retail electricity rates in many parts of the country between 2013 and 2018

The cost of solar energy has fallen sharply over the last 20 years, with accelerating price declines in the last five years.[4] The growing global demand for solar power has translated into manufacturing and supply chain efficiencies, resulting in price declines on par with consumer electronics like cell phones, laptop computers, and high-definition televisions.

Electricity from small or medium-scale solar installations, such as those on homes or businesses, costs around 12 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, but these prices should continue to drop thanks to falling installation costs, accessible, low-cost, long-term financing, and a healthy number of incentives and tax packages offered by nearly every state government. The current federal incentives include a 30 percent investment tax credit (ITC) and, for businesses and commercial units, a five-year modified accelerated cost recovery system (MACRS), which allows system owners to deduct federal taxes on an accelerated timetable of system value depreciation.

Advantages of Solar Energy

  • Sunlight is free and infinitely renewable.
  • Unlike conventional fossil fuel and nuclear power, solar power produces no polluting emissions, including those that cause global warming.
  • With no moving parts, solar panels are silent, easy to operate, and rarely need maintenance.
  • Solar power can slash utility bills for both residential and commercial consumers. By installing solar panels on its enormous roof, Hawaii's Mauna Lani Bay Hotel began saving enough on energy bills to pay for the investment in just five years.
  • Solar panels can help utilities avoid brownouts and blackouts. When demand for electricity is high, utilities can use the panels to generate extra energy rather than fire up expensive and polluting "peak" power plants that otherwise lie dormant.
  • Many solar panel manufacturers are based in the United States, employing more than 27,000 Americans in high-earning, high-tech jobs. This domestic industry helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil, coal and natural gas.

What's Around the Corner for Solar Energy

  • Massive concentrating solar-power plants will be built in the Southwest, providing clean electricity for millions of homes and businesses in the region. California's Blythe Solar Power plant, the world's largest, is expected to go online by 2013. According to Sandia National Labs, costs are expected to fall to about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2020, a price competitive with those at new coal- or gas-fired power plants.
  • Solar panels will be cheaper and more efficient thanks to cheaper raw materials, improved production methods, more engagement from utility companies, and bold government programs like the Department of Energy's SunShot initiative. Financial analysts and industry experts expect the cost of solar power to fall below retail electricity rates in much of the country between 2013 and 2018.

Renewable Energy Meets Wildland and Wildlife Conservation

Certain sensitive lands -- such as parks, monuments and wildlife conservation areas -- and ecologically sensitive marine areas are not appropriate for energy development. In some of these places, energy development is prohibited or limited by law or policy, and in others it would be highly controversial. NRDC does not endorse locating energy facilities or transmission lines in such areas. Siting decisions must always be made extremely carefully, with impacts mitigated and operations conducted in an environmentally responsible manner.

For more information on the intersection between clean energy development and wildland and wildlife conservation in the American West, including locations of parks, wildlife refuges and other conservation areas, see this Google Earth-based feature.

Learn More

NREL Solar Potential Maps
A series of dynamic maps to show the varying degrees of solar resource potential.
PV Watts
A solar PV economic performance modeling tool that provides cost and savings estimates for a potential new solar PV system anywhere in the United States.
Utility-Scale Concentrating Solar Power and Photovoltaics Projects: A Technology and Market Overview
This report from NREL provides a more technical overview of how mainstream solar technologies work, and compares the costs and benefits of each type.
Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) U.S. Solar Industry Supply Chain Map
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