Government and Solar

As you can imagine, I’m pretty keen on reading news about solar energy. There are a couple of disparate stories I want to talk about today, and then I want to link the two together in an effort to make a point about energy infrastructure and the future. The stories will take us to the mountaintops of Switzerland, and then down to the city of Detroit. We’ll look at idea for solar panels in each of those places, and try to draw some conclusions about the future of solar.

First, the mountaintops. When we imagine solar installations, it’s usually on the roofs of homes in Germany, or in fields in China, or in the middle of the desert, where precipitation is rare, so cloud cover doesn’t affect solar energy gains. Switzerland is currently moving away from nuclear power, which accounted for a large portion of their total energy generation. In order to supplant it, they need renewable energy; in part, that’s coming from hydro, but the Swiss government feels that’s not enough. One scientist came up with a potential solution: the mountains in the Alps are incredibly tall, so portions of many mountains peak through cloud cover. That means so long as the sun is up, solar panels installed on Swiss mountaintops will always be generating energy; with strategic placement, those solar panels could produce an incredible amount of energy. The problem with the proposition? Mountaintops aren’t exactly easy to get to, and creating the infrastructure to do so could be difficult. Fortunately, there are already roads leading up some mountains, where they are used to service hydroelectric dams. That means solar panels might be added to the grid with relative ease – with government assistance.

Now, the rooftops of Detroit. Ever wonder about the viability of solar projects? Google has created a tool (currently only available for the United States) called Project Sunroof, that allows you to see the solar potential of a city. Were solar panels installed on all of the viable roofs in Detroit, Project Sunroof estimates that CO2 emissions would be reduced by 2.4 million tons. A recent study shows a terrible disparity, though; black and Hispanic majority communities have substantially fewer solar installations than no-majority neighborhoods, while white majority neighborhoods have substantially more solar installations than no-majority neighborhoods. This is likely because of racial income disparity. Given that Detroit is majority black, and quite poor, one wonders at the potential for solar installation. Houses with solar panels also tend to be more expensive, so installing panels makes homes even more unaffordable, aggravating an already very real housing problem. The solution? Well, it may be subsidies for installing solar panels or buying homes with solar panels, and it may be subsidies for black and Hispanic companies who want to install solar panels. In short, the solution seems to be government assistance.

From installations on the mountaintops to alleviating racial disparity, if we want solar panels to be widely used to reduce carbon emissions, government intervention is a must. While middle and upper class consumers can install solar panels themselves, government intervention will lower the cost, increase use, and reduce carbon emissions, while allowing for complex, grid-integrated infrastructure. Solar solutions are quite viable, given our abundance of sun; we hope to see more solar incentives in the future, from the municipal, provincial and federal governments.