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Solar Energy's Popularity Increases As Rooftop Panels Get Less Expensive


And solar energy's day in the sun may finally have arrived. Over the past few years, the cost of solar power has steadily declined. Part of the reason is the cells used in solar panels are now mass-produced in places with cheap labor, like China. There's also more solar being generated on large-scale solar farms and on the rooftops of homeowners across this country. Now solar power is actually competitive with more traditional energy sources like coal, oil and natural gas. Eric Wesoff is the editor-in-chief of Greentech Media, a trade journal covering alternative technology. Thanks for coming to talk about this.

ERIC WESOFF: Hello, it's great to be here.

GREENE: So help me out, here. Not so long ago, it seemed like solar power was all but dead as a really serious energy source because everyone said it was so expensive. What has happened?

WESOFF: Well, it certainly was the domain of hippies and survivalists. And it was expensive. But just like everything else, the miracle of the marketplace - in this, I'm sorry to be cliche - it has really worked. And as the volumes have gone up, the price of solar has just dropped phenomenally, by 10X over the last 20 years.

GREENE: I live in Washington, D.C. Let's say I am interested in solar power. What do I do? Do I ask for, somehow, a panel on my roof? Do I go to my utility company and say, I want to buy solar power? How does it work for a customer?

WESOFF: The predominant way of getting solar on the roof for a resident like yourself - and it's easy - is something called third- party ownership, which means, as a homeowner, you can have solar panels on your roof and be lowering your electric bill considerably. But the fact is that you don't own those solar panels. They're leased to you by a company like Sunrun.

GREENE: I'm feeding solar energy into the system, basically. It's not just energy for me. I'm feeding it into the system and buying it back from this third party company?

WESOFF: You're absolutely pumping energy into the grid. And here's something that many solar residents are probably rudely awakened by, is that if the grid goes down, if there's some type of blackout, your solar panels go down.

GREENE: Let me just ask you about this parody that we seem to be reaching, where per kilowatt-hour, we're getting to a point where solar could be competing with coal, natural gas. How has that happened, and what does it mean?

WESOFF: It's simple. A utility, they buy electricity on the open market. They buy it from coal plants. They buy it from nuclear power plants. They buy it from fossil fuel plants. And they buy it in something called a power purchase agreement, a PPA, in which they agree to pay a certain amount of money, 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. That's an arbitrary number, 10 cents per kilowatt-hour from an independent power producer. And if you can bid into that utility at a price that beats coal, then the utility is obligated to buy the cheapest power source.

GREENE: Well, so where are we going with solar power? Is it now, you know, after this moment, going to truly be one of the main sources of energy?

WESOFF: So let's put it a little bit in perspective. Solar power is still - accounts for less than 1 percent of the electricity produced in the United States and across the globe. So we are still in very, very early days. But the market is growing spectacularly. Over the last 10 years - I'll give you approximate numbers - it's grown something like 30 percent per year, every year. Recessions, global economic disasters be damned. The solar market grows. There seems to be a momentum, and it's spurred by the sheer volume and dropping price.

GREENE: Sounds like very important moment for solar power. But we're not hitting a moment when this is the solar power revolution. I mean, a lot of other different types of power we still need.

WESOFF: Well, there is a revolution going on in solar power. The price - it's as if a car would have cost you $200,000 10 years ago, and today it costs $20,000. Imagine what that would do to the transportation world. That's a similar type of momentum and trajectory we're seeing in solar today. But yes, it's highly unlikely that solar would be the predominant production of energy source. But it will be an enormous help. And it's done with power from the sun. It's fuel we don't pay for.

GREENE: Eric Wesoff is the editor of Greentech Media. Eric, thanks so much for joining us.

WESOFF: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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