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The largest power source in this neck of the universe is still 93 million miles away from Earth. But its energy-producing potential for our planet is closer than ever to truly being realized.
Solar power has been touted for decades as being the ultimate answer to our energy needs. According to researchers at MIT, the amount of sunlight striking the earth’s surface is more than 10,000 times greater than the world’s total energy usage. Or as solar advocates like to put it, one hour of sunshine can create one year’s worth of energy.
“The advantages of solar are almost endless,” UAB Sustainability Manager Julie Price said. “The sun is not going anywhere, so we’re not going to run out. We have far more solar energy hitting the earth than we can ever possibly use. And once the panels are installed there are no emissions, no noise and really no maintenance.”
Recent advancements in technology have made solar a more affordable and practical option, and the business community has taken notice. According to a report by the Solar Foundation, one out of every 50 new jobs created in the United States in 2016 was in the solar industry (up from one in 83 the previous year), and the industry grew 17 times faster than the overall U.S. economy.
In addition, a report from the U.S. Department of Energy showed that in 2016, the solar industry employed more people in the power-generation sector than the coal, gas and oil industries combined, and accounted for approximately 43 percent of the sector’s total workforce. Nearly 374,000 people worked in the solar industry in the 2015-16 fiscal year, while coal was tops among the traditional fossil fuels with barely 86,000.
Perhaps most impressively, in 2016 the U.S. solar market nearly doubled its annual record, according to recently released figures from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). There were 14,626 megawatts of solar installed in 2016, a 95 percent increase over 2015’s then record-breaking 7,493 megawatts.
Now granted, part of the reason for these numbers is that solar energy is in an early growth stage, meaning that many of the increases are related to the construction of facilities. And the industry continues to be dominated by the state of California, which accounted for nearly a third of the new job hires. Still, there seems to be no doubt that solar is emerging from the shadows to become a legitimate power source.
“Solar has popularity on both sides of the (political) aisle,” said Katie Chiles Ottenweller, leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Solar Initiative. “There are some people who are interested in it because they care about the environment. There are other folks who are passionate about private property rights and being able to meet their own energy needs.”
“So some people align with economic benefits, some with health benefits, some with creating jobs, and some with generating homegrown energy so we don’t have to import from other countries. All those things are benefits for advancing solar power.”
And yet, when compared to most other states, Alabama has yet to see the light when it comes to solar energy. The states ranks near or at the bottom in most categories involving solar power and the overall use of renewable energy sources.
For example, a study released in January by the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) ranked all 50 states based on the ease with which domestic renewable energy such as solar and wind can be obtained. Iowa ranked first with a score of 74.7. Idaho and Wyoming tied for 48th at 13.6. Alabama trailed badly in last place with a dismal score of 1.8.
According to 2015 statistics from SELA, Alabama ranked 44th nationally in installed solar capacity, and the state is not gaining ground. The amount of new solar capacity installed in Alabama in 2015 was the second-smallest amount in the country.
What makes those numbers especially perplexing to solar advocates is how far behind Alabama ranks compared to some of its neighboring states, which have basically the same climate and economic conditions. According to SELA, Georgia ranks 12th in the country in installed solar capacity, and the amount installed in 2015 was the sixth-highest total in the nation, while Tennessee ranks 21st in installed solar capacity.
“Alabama is pretty much behind in almost every respect,” said Lee Peterson, a Georgia-based tax attorney who works primary with businesses involved in the renewable-energy sector, and is a board member of the Southern Property Rights Council. “The contrast between Alabama and Georgia is just mind-blowing. Why is that? There’s something going on in Alabama that’s keeping it well and far behind its immediate neighbors in the region.”
“Wall Street has become very comfortable with solar, so there is essentially an unlimited amount of investment capital out there. And there is absolutely no question that the technology is there, as vouched by the fact Wall Street thinks there is very little risk associated with it. So if the resources, the technology and the investment capital are all there, the only shortfall is individual state policy. That’s the only thing keeping the industry down.”
“In states across the country that have more solar jobs and more renewable energy in general, it’s because those states have policies that don’t impair it. States that don’t have favorable policies have an impairment, and that’s what you see playing out in Alabama.”
Most solar advocates say that policies and rates enacted by the Alabama Public Service Commission and Alabama Power are preventing solar from surging in the state, a topic we will look at more closely in the second part of this series. Alabama Power says it is trying to balance advancements in solar with a desire to keep electrical rates as affordable as possible for all users.
“Alabama Power supports solar and renewable energy where it makes sense for our customers,”Alabama Power media relations coordinator Michael Sznajderman said.
Regardless of how the state moves forward when it comes to solar, there seems to be no argument that the potential exists for significant growth. As far back as 2010, an Arizona State University study listed Alabama as one of the top-10 states that would most benefit from an increased use of solar, in terms of both generating energy (job creation) and from consuming that energy (economic savings).
More recently, the renewable-energy advocacy organization The Solutions Project came out with economic projections for each state based upon transitioning to 100 percent solar, water and wind energy by the year 2050. The group estimated that Alabama could produce approximately 70 percent of needed energy through solar sources. In addition, a complete transition to renewables would create more than 180,000 long-term jobs, and result in annual energy, health and climate cost savings of more than $17,000 per person.
“There is really no limit on the amount of energy that can be produced from solar in Alabama,” Peterson said. “Right now, there are thousands of jobs not being created and a lot of opportunity for economic investment not happening.”
Follow this story with part 2: “Solar power in Alabama – Do we need policy changes?” and part 3: “For a few Alabamians, solar is so good!” of our Solar Series.
Are you making plans to go solar or know a friend who did? We’d love to hear about your experience at hello(@)bhamnow.com.