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A Solar Mandate? We’re Closer Than You Think

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As States Mandate Solar In New Construction, What’s Next?

As costs fall and interest in green energy rises, cities across the United States are beginning to make solar power mandatory, at least for new construction. As of January 2017, all new San Francisco constructions under 10 stories must have solar panels, while New York State recently announced plans for their zero cost Solar For All program to serve low-income residents. Still, even as various regional mandates take shape, concerns remain at the fore: how soon will all homes go solar? And what’s next in sustainability?

The Water Is Warm

One of the major issues with the conversion to solar power is that, unless the home is already using an electric water heater, many still require a supplemental gas hook-up. And even those with electric water heaters aren’t necessarily running efficiently when they convert solar to energy to electricity and then use that to heat water.

A better alternative, then, would be to install passive solar water systems that use sunlight as the direct heat source. This method is highly efficient and could provide a 50-80% energy savings for an average four-person household, while simultaneously reducing pollution.

Let Landlords Lead

The majority of solar panels in the United States are on private homes or are part of the government or private office buildings; you’re not likely to find them at use in many apartment buildings, especially in public housing, since it’s not considered to be of benefit to the landlord. One of the significant problems with this restricted application, though, is that in urban areas, the majority of people are actually apartment-dwellers.

By encouraging landlords to lead their own initiatives and incentivizing apartment-based sustainability, cities could improve adoption rates significantly. Landlords already control specific energy-use aspects for their tenants, such as setting the water heater temperature lower or installing high-efficiency appliances and HVAC systems. As an added bonus, while in the past, non-standard electrical systems, such as solar, might have been considered a negative among apartment hunters, today’s tenants are more interested in green housing than prior generations.

Moving Past Solar

Finally, and perhaps of greatest concern, we need to grapple with the consequences of solar waste as solar panels come into broader adoption. A recent study by Environmental Progress showed that, based on an average lifetime of 25 years, solar panels actually produce 300 times as much toxic waste per energy unit as a nuclear power plant does. This accounts particularly for waste from manufacturing, but we’ll also need to grapple with the physical disposal of solar panels as old ones are taken out of commission. While nuclear power plants pose other obvious environmental issues, few considered that solar panels could be such serious polluters despite their renewable status.

To respond to the polluting aspects of solar, it’s important that cities and states investing in renewable energy look to other options such as wind farming. California, for example, has been working on renewable energy growth through a combination of solar and wind energy but remains concerned that this is inadequate – some days are dark, and the residents of California still need power. However, by adding lithium-ion energy storage to their renewable system, California may be able to fulfill its commitment to be 100% renewable by 2045.

The wind has certainly proven to be a top contender in the transformation of the renewable energy sector. Oklahoma has seen enormous success with their wind turbine program and stood out as one of just 4 states to produce more than a quarter of its energy from wind in 2016. And while land use remains a concern for numerous environmentalists, wind farming can take place offshore, minimizing land use in areas that could be used for agriculture or as wildlife preserves.

Sustainability isn’t just about renewable energy, it’s about the use of the best possible energy sources in the right places. With the growing use of solar and localized mandates, however, we’re rapidly realizing that solar might not be the right choice. Unless solar can become more sustainable, it certainly won’t make it as our sole energy source, and we should start adapting to others sooner rather than later.

Jeff is a contractor specializing in residential construction and construction management in Chicago, Illinois for over 20 years. He deals exclusively in new construction and remodeling for residential projects and can act as designer, builder, and general contractor as well as preliminary estimates, cost vs. benefit analysis.

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