It's a simple process. Walk outside. Open a canister. Fill it with air. See what's there. And this spring, what's there in the Arctic's air is a new number no one wants to see: 400 parts per million, a milestone in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels the Earth hasn't experienced in (count 'em) 800,000 years. Here's another number: 1. That's the number of solar power systems we can each install to bring that other number down.
But before we get to the second number, let's go back to the first. 400 parts per million (ppm) means that out of every million molecules of atmosphere, 400 are carbon dioxide. The more CO2 in the air, the more heat that air can trap, and though 400 ppm may seem insignificant, it's enough to bake the planet. Scientists say that the highest safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 ppm. Before the Industrial Revolution started burning every hydrocarbon in sight, levels stood at around 275 ppm. In that kind of math, 400 ppm = uh-oh.
This is makes lowering our own parts per million the single most important single thing we can do. And given that electricity generation accounts for 39% of America's CO2 emissions, taking our homes solar is magnificent way to start.
The good news is that this appears to be solar's moment in the sun. According to a new report from global consulting firm McKinsey & Co., solar is reaching its own tipping point. Installation costs are dropping like a stone and solar's costs per kilowatt hour are now competitive with electrical rates in many regions. In a few more years, solar will very likely be cheaper than paying your power company.
You can see these seismic changes in a brilliant new kind of home installation called solar leasing. Under this arrangement, a company installs a solar system on your roof for free. In return, you pay a monthly fee equal to or less than your current monthly power bill. The fee is locked for the life of the lease, which means no more rising power bills, and the excess power you generate is sent out onto your local electrical grid thus rolling your electric meter backward. When it's cloudy or dark outside, you take that power back.
It's financially painless and easy as pie. The only real issue is figuring out if solar is right for you. Here are the issues the experts say you should consider:
- Your credit score. You'll need a good one (around 680 or higher) to get approved for a lease. If you don't qualify, talk to a financial advisor about fixing your credit so you can.
- Your roof. It should face south or at least get a lot of daily sun from an east/west exposure. Solar won't work on north-facing surfaces or shaded roofs.
- Your power company's net-metering policies. Just because your meter will run backwards on sunny days doesn't mean your local company will credit you for the power you create. Even if it does, you may get less than the going rate for each kilowatt hour. Make sure you know what the deal is before you install.
- Your expected tenancy. Most solar leases are for 20-25 years. If you plan on staying where you are, no problem. But if you'll be moving, a lease could complicate your home's sale. Or it could be selling point! Explore the issues with your leasing company and a local realtor.
- Your panel type. There are two basic kinds of solar panel: polycrystalline and monocrystalline. Polycrystalline panels are cheaper and more rugged but less efficient. Monocrystalline offer more efficient performance in less space and colder temperatures, but at a higher cost and greater fragility. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type. Talk them over with your installer.
In the end, we have just two choices when it comes to climate change. We can act like children, stick our heads in the sand, and pretend it isn't happening. Or we can grab this bull by the horns, and be adult about it. Your call, America. But I know which path I'm taking. And it leads straight to my roof.
photo: Pink Dispatcher