The author, far left, & others at a solar panel event
Fifteen years ago, flat-screen televisions were a rare luxury item, a smart phone was one with an address book, we kept our music on plastic discs, and video chats were a feature in Star Trek episodes. Now there's widespread use of handheld devices that enable us to listen to music, watch videos, talk, text or video-chat with friends or colleagues, while also providing immediate access to a world of information.
Times have changed, and solar power is a case in point. Fifteen years ago, solar was used by a small number of true believers. Now, because of advances in technology and growing economies of scale, solar costs 25 percent of what it cost in 2000.
Solar panels are popping up all over: on homes, businesses, places of worship, and government buildings. Just over two months ago, in his State of the Union address, President Obama summed it up when he said, "Every three weeks, we bring as much solar online as we did in all of 2008."
Here in New York, solar energy grew 63 percent per year between 2010 and 2013. That's fast enough to reach a goal of 20 percent solar in New York by 2025– a goal once thought ambitious, if not impossible, but now readily achievable.
"Star Power: the Growing Role of Solar Energy in New York," a recent report by Environment New York Research & Policy Center, shows that growth could actually slow down to 47 percent and solar energy would still provide 20 percent of our power in the next decade.
This is a critical finding at a time when state regulators are trying to transform the New York's energy efficiency and renewable energy programs through Governor Cuomo's "Reforming the Energy Vision" (REV) initiative.
Boosting solar energy power production is more urgent than ever. Scientists have never been clearer that global warming is real, happening now, and will only get worse without meaningful action. In New York, we're already feeling consequences like Hurricane Sandy and other more extreme weather.
Achieving 20 percent solar energy would cut as much carbon pollution as 3 million cars emit in a year, and put New York more than halfway to the benchmark set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which requires cuts in power plant carbon pollution of 44 percent.
More solar isn't just good for the environment. It's also good for our economy. Solar is currently the fastest-growing industry in the country, adding 143,000 jobs nationwide in 2013. According to the latest solar jobs census from the Solar Foundation, the solar industry employed more than 7,000 people in New York last year.
Of course, 20 percent solar is just a sliver of the possible. The state is home to more than 1.9 million residential and commercial rooftops that could host solar panels, and it has enough technical potential to meet the state's energy needs 11 times over.
We've made progress. But we can't take that progress for granted. Powerful interests, including the fossil fuel industry and electric utilities are working hard to slow gains. To take solar to the next level, we'll need a strong commitment from our local, state, and national leaders. By adopting a goal of getting 20 percent of our power from the sun by 2025 and working together, we can begin to move New York and the nation toward a future where we get all of our power from pollution-free energy sources. Our quality of life and our children's future depend on it.
Heather Leibowitz, Esq. is the Director of Environment New York, a statewide environmental advocacy organization.