Clean energy from the sun is getting cheaper every year, thanks to the plummeting cost of solar panels. This trend has been going on for decades—and it’s accelerating. At the same time, the cost of producing energy from coal and other sources is going up—that’s what scarcity will do. These trends are going to meet sometime soon.
According to a recent study published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, between late 2009 and mid 2011, the wholesale price of solar panels dropped by 70%. Meanwhile, the cost of electricity from our grid, which is mostly generated by coal and gas plants, has been slowly rising over the past decade. As those two trends continue, solar electricity will soon become as cheap and cheaper than regular retail electricity. That moment is called "grid parity" (i.e., when solar reaches parity with grid electricity) and it’s exciting because once we reach grid parity, solar power won’t just be the eco-friendly option—it’ll also be the economical option. That will give America a powerful new incentive to switch.
And in fact, grid parity is right around the corner. In some parts of the country, we’ve already reached it. John Farrell, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Self-Reliant States and Communities program, recently mapped which cities will hit grid parity first.
Scroll through the slideshow of the Farrell’s grid parity maps to see when solar power will get a kick in the pants from the free market in your community.
Farrell produced this map using the current retail rate for electricity in different areas and two assumptions: first, that the cost of solar power would continue to decline by 7% per year, and second, that the cost of retail electricity would continue to rise by 2% per year.
These projections are just that: projections. It’s possible that the cost of solar will decline even more quickly. Or—who knows—maybe we’ll invent some other breakthrough energy technology. Much also depends on political support for renewable energy. But this timeline, for what it’s worth, is encouraging. We have to get off coal quickly, because we’re really playing with fire (and floods and droughts) with the way we’re currently altering the climate.