Renewables for the 100%

I’m a big fan of bringing solar to the 75% — that is, those of us who can’t get solar on our own rooftops. In the solar equation, with leases putting panels within reach of more Americans, solar is no longer an elite luxury that only the 1% can afford. But for most of us, it’s still out of reach. If you rent your home, have a shaded roof, or live in a multi-unit building, just to name a few obstacles, you may belong to that 75% who still can’t go solar.

So how will we get solar and other renewables to everyone? Negative media coverage has a lot of people thinking renewable energy is not yet ready for prime time. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Now there’s a study to back up that claim. And it comes with another percentage: 99.9%. According to the study, that’s the amount of time renewable energy could power a large electric grid by 2030.

What’s more, doing this would cost no more than what we’re spending on electricity today.

To keep costs relatively low and fill supply gaps, according to the study, we’d need to generate excess power from a variety of renewable resources. Because sun and wind are intermittent, the traditional thinking is that the only way to rely on them to supply our power when demand is peaking is to store a good portion of that power. But storage is expensive. Instead, the study’s authors suggest, we can generate much more power than we need, at a variety of sites. When the sun goes behind a cloud or the wind dies down at one site, they might pick up at another. So generating excess power at distributed sites means that at any given time, we are generating power somewhere. We’d therefore require less storage, keeping costs down.

While this is great news, it also has a bit of a wasteful sound to it. I have to wonder if generating way more power than we need is the best solution.

Maybe one tactic would be to include more than just wind and solar. Don’t get me wrong, I love solar! And it’s the simplest way we have to generate renewable energy. But it’s not the only way.

It might help to take a cue from the community power movement. In his book Power from the People, local energy advocate Greg Pahl makes a case for including hydropower, biogas, biomass, liquid biofuels, and geothermal energy to get beyond our dependence on fossil fuels. Which renewable sources are used should depend on what’s most readily available and easy to implement in each community. And supplementing wind and solar with these other renewables can make up for their intermittency — for example, you can keep a biomass facility going all the time, even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Generating power within communities is key, as the renewables study hints. Using distributed energy sources brings many benefits and can help ensure that we always have power when we need it.

As Pahl shows with community power case studies from around the country, moving to renewables can save money, even at today’s prices. John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance also points out that solar is already more competitive than people think, especially when deployed locally. Given that the costs of wind and solar are expected to continue dropping, it’s no wonder that by 2030, using them will be a good deal.

But we don’t have to wait till 2030 to get started! Renewables can not only save money but also be a good investment now, and more ways are emerging for everyone to participate. Mosaic’s new online marketplace, for example, is making it possible for people to invest in community solar projects and earn solid returns.

That’s one of a number of opportunities opening up for the 75%, and the 99%, to get involved in solar power and reap its many benefits. Before we know it, solar and other renewables will be for the 100% — 100% of the time.

This post was originally published at Mosaic.

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