Distributed Solar: The Best Renewable Energy


By Donnie R. Dann

Several forms of “green” energy may do more harm than good. So what types of renewable energy are better? Is there a renewable energy source that is both wildlife-friendly and relatively low cost? Yes, there is: “distributed solar.”

Current energy generation sources are primarily large-scale coal- and gas-fired power plants, massive hydroelectric dams, and nuclear generating stations. Even renewable energy mostly originates from industrial-scale wind farms or multi-acre solar arrays. But with distributed solar, the energy generators are spread out, dispersed, or decentralized. Think rooftop photovoltaic panels on suburban homes, urban factories, or even rural farm buildings.

Distributed rooftop solar systems send power directly to the user — no power plants and no power lines are needed to get it there. The user is “off-the-grid.” Moreover, installing these systems does not require erecting structures that destroy habitat or displace, injure, or kill plants and animals. On the contrary, distributed solar fills in otherwise unused space on rooftops. Last, and perhaps most obvious, distributed rooftop solar systems avoid fossil fuel use to the extent that they displace power that would otherwise need to be purchased from coal- or natural gas-fired power plants.

But is solar energy a practicable solution for the U.S., a country with significant areas of cloud cover? Yes, according to the experience of Germany, hardly a very sunny country. Germany currently produces more than 23 gigawatts of solar energy, which provides over 50 percent of the country’s electricity.

Some critics also claim the solar solution is impractical because their roofs are not south-facing. As Michael Richard has pointed out, a west roofline orientation may be even more suitable.

As to the cost of solar, there is no doubt that the downward trend has been significant. David Roberts writes that “the rapidly falling cost of solar PV [photovoltaics] is the clean-energy story to beat all clean-energy stories!”   Many companies make the financing of solar installations relatively painless by applying the utility bill savings to the lease cost.

In Illinois, energy-conscious consumers have an additional incentive. In addition to the federal solar tax credit, Illinois passed legislation in 2014 authorizing up to $30 million for supplemental “distributed generation for solar procurement.” Other states have similar incentives.

Considering the benefits of passive solar, the rapid advances in solar storage capacity, and the decline in installation costs, there is little uncertainty that this technology is not just the wave of the future, but is also the best way we can provide efficient, benign power today.

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