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In today’s climate crisis, we must adequately consider, respond to, and mitigate the dire effects of anthropogenic climate change. This necessitates energy infrastructure that relies on sustainable resources, rather than greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels. Despite recent popular trends and media coverage emphasizing the use of cleaner energy in the United States, the majority of our energy continues to be derived from fossil fuels. Petroleum-based energy sources account for around 36% of all energy produced, followed by natural gas at 31%, then coal at 13%[1]. It is absurd to think that such an antiquated fuel like coal plays a larger part in the United States energy economy than all renewable energy sources combined, and yet only 11% of energy consumed is produced by a renewable source.

 It is important to define what exactly renewable means, especially in the context of energy sources. A renewable resource must be able to replenish itself at a rate equal to, or faster than, the rate it is being consumed. Looking further into the breakdown of these sources of “renewable energies”, it is inferable that some are only conditionally renewable; that is,they are renewable under specific circumstances.These conditionally renewable resources include those created from the burning of living matter, like trees, which are only renewable if trees are replenished at a rate greater than they are being depleted.

Image from Rooftop Power Co.

The combustion of biomass accounts for 45% of “renewable energy sources”, be it biofuel, wood fuel, or the burning of bio-waste[2]. For example, the most widespread technique for harvesting timber is clearcutting, a technique in which vast swaths of forest are cut and taken away. The absence of these trees in combination with the other effects of logging wreak havoc on the ecosystem. Due to the system-wide damage incurred, it often takes decades for the ecosystem to begin to recover; this is also dependent on the types of trees replanted by the logging industry, many of which replace native species with faster growing, non-native monocultures of trees. 

Considering the problematic nature surrounding the harvesting of these resources, the burden shifts to other forms of renewable energy, principally, geothermal, wind, hydroelectric, and solar power. Though there are other viable sources of renewable energy, these four are the most utilized in the United States[3].  There is no single source of renewable energy that will allow us to cast aside our dependency on fossil fuels. A diversified energy portfolio is the only way to wean ourselves off our greenhouse gas-heavy energy infrastructure. One part of this portfolio that has gained particular prominence is solar energy.

As the technology and manufacturing processes behind solar panels are becoming increasingly cost-effective, the market for the installation of solar power has opened up, allowing for entrepreneurs to help spread this renewable technology. One example of a solar power company is Rooftop Power. Rooftop Power services both Massachusetts and Rhode Island, aiding customers throughout the process of installing solar panels. Hyrum Bond, the founder of Rooftop Power, fostered an appreciation of nature throughout his life spending time outdoors in Argentina and the United States. While living in the United States, he thought to capitalize upon the opportunities he was presented with, choosing to start a business in the solar industry.  He started in the West coast, and specifically chose to expand his business in the East coast because “the east coast offers more state incentives than west coast states.” He notes that these incentives are “a larger priority for New England states, and other states are jumping on it at a slower pace[4]”. Bond explains that any industry which hinges upon changing entrenched lifestyles is going to be difficult, and renewable energy is not an exception[5]. For Bond, Rooftop Power provides a way for him to pursue his passion of helping people and the environment.

Image from Rooftop Power Co.

Rooftop Power has already installed solar panels in around 400 homes. An average home solar panel installation may reduce up to 12,000 lbs of greenhouse gases, which is the equivalent of planting 300 trees[6]. Aside from saving the carbon equivalent of planting a tree, Rooftop Power also partners with a global nonprofit called “One Tree Planted”. For every segment of panels installed that produces 100 KW, Rooftop Power makes a donation to One Tree Planted to help offset any trees cut down in their installation process. Overall, Bond found that this unique combination of interacting with the customer and helping people save money while also benefiting the environment ignited a passion for this work[7]

Image from Rooftop Power Co.

Companies such as these aid the consumer in evaluating if the home’s location is right for solar power using techniques such as shade analysis[8]. Shade analysis can be performed in a variety of ways, from handheld meters that use mathematical functions based on a light reading, to computer simulations that take into account seasonal weather data, variations in sun intensity, and the local environment[9]. This analysis determines if it is viable to install the solar panels and have them perform efficiently. If the shade analysis determines that the solar panels will be able to gather adequate energy, the project may move forward. Rooftop Power uses a tool from Solmetric called “Suneye”, which analyzes the amount of shade hitting an area. Following this analysis are the engineering and actual installation phases. Rooftop Power is unique in that they do not subcontract out aspects of the process, but instead conduct the project by themselves, end to end[10].

Solar panels at a basic level work through the interaction of  two semiconductor metals, commonly phosphate or boron, within silicon photovoltaic cells. As Bond explains “panels are [made up of] aluminum, glass, and silicon. There are mini quadrants that make up a box. In the box, there is phosphate and boron which have a positive and negative charge. When a photon hits the panel, the panel turns it into energy.”[11] The photon (sunlight), knocks an electron from one of these semiconductors, and the atomic interactions create a flow of electricity.

Rooftop Power solar panels “have a warranty for 25 years, but can last for about 30 years.” The panels themselves are also made out of materials that are recyclable or reusable.[12] This helps to somewhat alleviate the concerns surrounding the harvest of the materials used to make solar panels. However, the mining of these metals still constitutes a grave environmental impact. 

Image from Rooftop Power Co.

Rooftop Power prides itself on its ability to assist the customer with navigating through the application process for subsidies and incentives for investing in solar power. Bond states that Rooftop Power will “never propose or install a system that doesn’t save a customer money from Day 1.”[13] Unlike nonrenewable energy sources, many state governments have programs that subsidize the cost of renewable energy, such as solar, on the individual level. Massachusetts has established several initiatives to prioritize the development of renewable energy sources within the state, including solar[14]. For example, the SMART (Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target) Program will help Massachusetts achieve its energy goal of 40% renewable by 2030[15]. The SMART program uses a tariff reduction system to allow power companies such as National Grid and EverSource to directly pay incentives out to those who apply for the program[16]. There are other incentives available to offset the initial investment in renewable energy, such as renewable energy tax credits, or in Rhode Island, the National Grid Regrowth Program[17].

Image from Rooftop Power Co.

As Bond echoed in our interview with him, it is not only economically viable to invest in solar power, but the savings can be seen almost immediately. Through investing in solar energy, citizens can vote with their wallets, showing the federal and state governments that renewable energy is not only worth investing in for the long term, but it is absolutely necessary to fight climate change and the destruction of our ecosphere. Solar energy is not perfect, however, and must be used in combination with other renewable energy sources, each used in an area that caters to its specific strengths and mitigates their shortcomings. For example, the battery technology simply isn’t there yet, which limits solar panels’ energy production to when the weather permits, and most of that energy may be lost if there is no place to store it. To put it in perspective, the Renewable Resources Coalition cites, “if you wanted to have one day’s worth of back-up energy for a four bedroom house, you would need three tesla batteries, coming to a whopping total of $18,300.”[18] This is not feasible for most people. However, if more companies invest in these technologies and production upscales, batteries of this size will become more attainable, alongside the panels themselves.

Solar is also limited by location due to the Earth’s tilt. Regions along the equator receive more direct sunlight, and the amount of sunlight decreases as you move towards the poles. This would make solar ineffectual for many areas closer to the poles, such as Russia. Weather-related phenomenon also renders certain areas inadequate for solar energy production. In places such as Hawaii, which receive large amounts of rainfall throughout the year[19], the sunlight is too diffuse to be able to create electricity. Even in areas that receive adequate sunlight, space becomes an issue. Rooftop installation of solar panels in already developed areas are ideal, but the installation is limited by the size of the dwelling or building. This can be alleviated by building solar panel arrays out in open areas, but extreme caution must be used to take the surrounding ecosystems into consideration.

Despite these shortcomings, it is paramount to our survival to invest in sustainable sources of energy, and to change the status quo of how we live and how much we consume. As Bond stated, “we were taught when we were little to take care of the things that we have[20]”. It is our responsibility to be good stewards for our shared environment. Even though solar panels produce greenhouse gas emissions, and harm the environment through the mining of their component metals, their manufacture, transportation, installation and maintenance, they are significantly less harmful than fossil fuels.  You can talk about sustainable energy in terms of profitability and smart investments, but it is crucial to realize that the payoff for that investment is not primarily monetary, it is survival. If we do not invest in sustainable infrastructure, and if we do not support those like Rooftop Power who push initiatives like solar, the future will be dire.

Visit their website at https://rooftoppowerco.com/ for more information!

Image from Rooftop Power Co.

Works Cited

[1] “U.S. energy facts explained – consumption and production ….” Accessed November 11, 2019. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/us-energy-facts/.

[2] “U.S. energy facts explained – consumption and production ….” Accessed November 11, 2019. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/us-energy-facts/.

[3] “U.S. energy facts explained – consumption and production ….” Accessed November 11, 2019. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/us-energy-facts/.

[4] Bond, Hyrum. “Rooftop Power Phone Interview” Interview by Kennedy Muise. August 22 2019

[5] Bond, Hyrum. “Rooftop Power Phone Interview” Interview by Kennedy Muise. August 22 2019

[6] Bond, Hyrum. “Rooftop Power Phone Interview” Interview by Kennedy Muise. August 22 2019

[7] Bond, Hyrum. “Rooftop Power Phone Interview” Interview by Kennedy Muise. August 22 2019

[8] Bond, Hyrum. “Rooftop Power Phone Interview” Interview by Kennedy Muise. August 22 2019

[9] “Shading Analysis – pvresources.com.” http://www.pvresources.com/en/siteanalysis/shadinganalysis.php. Accessed 15 Nov. 2019.

[10] Bond, Hyrum. “Rooftop Power Phone Interview” Interview by Kennedy Muise. August 22 2019

[11] Bond, Hyrum. “Rooftop Power Phone Interview” Interview by Kennedy Muise. August 22 2019

[12] Bond, Hyrum. “Rooftop Power Phone Interview” Interview by Kennedy Muise. August 22 2019

[13] Bond, Hyrum. “Rooftop Power Phone Interview” Interview by Kennedy Muise. August 22 2019

[14] “Solar Information & Programs | Mass.gov.” https://www.mass.gov/solar-information-programs. Accessed 15 Nov. 2019.

[15] “Bill H.4857 – Massachusetts Legislature.” https://malegislature.gov/Bills/190/H4857. Accessed 15 Nov. 2019.

[16] “Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) | Mass.gov.” Accessed November 15, 2019. https://www.mass.gov/solar-massachusetts-renewable-target-smart.

[17] “Renewable Energy Growth Program (REG Program)- Rhode ….” Accessed November 15, 2019. http://www.energy.ri.gov/policies-programs/programs-incentives/reg-program.php.

[18] “Solar Energy Disadvantages: The Top Drawbacks of Solar ….” Accessed November 16, 2019. https://www.renewableresourcescoalition.org/solar-energy-disadvantages/.

[19] “Solar Energy Disadvantages: The Top Drawbacks of Solar ….” Accessed November 16, 2019. https://www.renewableresourcescoalition.org/solar-energy-disadvantages/.

[20] Bond, Hyrum. “Rooftop Power Phone Interview” Interview by Kennedy Muise. August 22 2019