There’s been a lot written about Monday’s solar eclipse, and for good reason — it’s an awe-inspiring phenomenon that hasn’t occurred in the lower 48 United States since 1979. During the day on Monday, the moon will align itself directly between the sun and Earth, totally blocking the sun along a path 70 miles wide and spanning 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina. All lower 48 states will see at least a 50 percent eclipse, so even if you’re not in the direct eclipse path, you’ll still get a show. The list of solar eclipse fun facts is endless, so instead of me telling you, here’s a great summary of what solar eclipses are all about and what you need to know for Monday. (Hint: don’t forget your eclipse sunglasses!)
For those of us on the Environment America clean energy team, the solar eclipse is a powerful reminder of the progress solar energy has made, and how much further we need to go. When the last solar eclipse occurred 38 years ago, solar panels were niche products, and electricity generated from the sun made up a negligible piece of our electrical grid.
Suffice to say, a lot has changed in 38 years — and the last decade in particular. Our latest report, Renewables on the Rise, details the stunning growth of solar from 2007–2016. A few highlights:
- America produces about 43 times more solar energy today than ten years ago, enough to power more than five million average-sized American homes.
- Distributed solar energy, which includes panels installed on homes and office buildings, increased 2,800 percent over that same time frame.
- And finally, in early 2016, about 40 years after the first solar panels came online, the U.S. surpassed one million installations nationwide. At the end of 2016, we were at 1.4 million, and we’re expected to hit the two million mark in just two years.
Solar may still make up only about one percent of the nation’s electricity mix, but its rapid growth has many thinking about how we will incorporate more onto the grid, especially as we move towards 100 percent renewable energy. California, a state that relies on solar for as much as 40 percent of its electricity on some days, is already doing it. In fact, during a three hour period on March 11, the electricity used by Californians was about 50 percent solar.
During Monday’s eclipse, experts predict as much as 10,000 megawatts (MW) of solar electricity will be blocked, which is enough electricity to power seven million homes. Some are pointing to that as a knock on solar’s reliability, but let’s put that number in perspective. Instead of focusing on the solar power that will be lost during the eclipse, we should instead realize that we have barely scratched the surface of solar energy’s potential in America, and are quickly developing viable energy storage solutions. Those 10,000 MW of solar electricity that we’re losing are dwarfed by solar’s potential: According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), enough sunlight hits the United States to meet our electricity needs 100 times over, and with rooftop solar alone, we could produce about 112 times the amount of solar we’re losing during the eclipse.
Where is all that extra solar energy going to go, you ask? Battery storage. As prices have plummeted over the last decade, battery storage capacity in the U.S. has grown 2,000 percent, and that trend is expected to continue. Instead of having to dip into a fossil fuel backup supply when the sun isn’t shining, whether it’s a rare eclipse or nighttime, we’ll be able to use clean energy.
Ultimately, we know we need to keep aiming for 100 percent renewable energy. That’ll certainly come with its challenges, as Monday’s rare eclipse event will give us a preview of, but it’s still 100 percent necessary — and we have to be up to the challenge.
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