Solar energy is most known for its environmental value: every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced from a solar panel is a kilowatt-hour not produced from fossil fuels. In fact, due to increased efficiency and better manufacturing methods, the energy breakeven point of solar panels is now extremely low compared to its 25-35 year lifespan.
A relatively newer breakthrough is solar’s economic value, with growth and job opportunities, less costly consequences (ever hear of a solar spill?), and an average payback period of 7 years for solar customers in the United States. Even in the face of panel import tariffs, solar has become affordable and accessible to the average home and business owner.
What is still underestimated is the humble solar panel’s social value, placing this technology in a trifecta that’s as rare as it is wonderful. Most of us take for granted our access to reliable power, but over a billion people around the world don’t have this same access. Check out how solar is making a difference all over the globe.
Puerto Rico- Getting the Grid Back
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, including its power grid. Six months later there are still entire towns in the dark, making this the largest blackout in US history. Government officials are looking for the best way to rebuild the grid, and with their plentiful sunlight, solar is looking like the most viable option. Organizations like the Solar Foundation are deploying solar panels and battery storage to Puerto Rico’s hospitals, schools and community centers to help bring reliable power back to these communities. In the wake of this tragedy, we may see a more resilient and sustainable power matrix for the island.
South America- Solar Protecting the Rainforest
Deforestation is one of the leading contributors to climate change, along with burning fossil fuels and farming livestock. As we clear lush rainforests for ranching, development, and logging, we are not only destroying wild habitats and depleting the land, but we’re also removing trees and plants that were absorbing carbon dioxide around the clock.
About 90% of logging is illegal, and the problem lies in catching the tree poachers in the act. A young physicist has paired solar and smartphone technology to detect when illegal logging is taking place by detecting the acoustics of buzzing chainsaws. The phone, charged by a small solar panel, alerts local groups that a forest is in danger.
This group, called Rainforest Connection, is setting up these sun-powered monitoring systems in jungles all over the world to stop climate change at the source. They are currently monitoring over 36,000 hectares of rainforests throughout South America, Cameroon, and Sumatra.
Africa- Microgrids Bring Economic Stability
Affordable and reliable access to power continues to be a serious hindrance to development and quality of life in Africa, a continent that will be hit particularly hard by climate change. Solar microgrids are beginning to pop up and bring stability to agrarian communities.
There are also deeper social implications for children and women, as they often use toxic kerosene lamps in their homes and schools. Organizations like Santa Barbara’s very own Unite to Light are sending solar-powered lamps to these communities to provide a more healthy and reliable form of light.
China- Solar Over Smog
China’s air pollution problem is finally being addressed by their government, with over 80,000 factories being punished for violating environmental laws in the last year. To meet new climate goals, coal mines are being closed and the nation is investing in solar and wind on large-scale projects. Ironically, China’s plan to meet 10 percent of their electricity needs with solar energy by 2030 is being inhibited by the same air pollution that motivated them in the first place. The good news is that as they continue to invest in clean energy, the air quality will improve.