Rooftop Solar Set to Outshine Massive Solar Farms
Jack Dolgin is a freshman at Duke University. Originally from New York, NY, he is a dorm Eco-Rep, Senator for Facilities and Environment on Duke Student Government, and interested in studying environmental science and political science.
In 2013, the U.S. built the gargantuan, $2.2 billion Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, the largest cluster of solar panels in the world. However, besides killing birds flying overhead, Ivanpah represents a centralized, utility-run model of solar technology that is both the first of its size and quite possibly the last.
With solar prices dropping substantially every year, residential solar panels are now increasingly enticing. They are a cost-effective alternative to utility-owned large fields like Ivanpah because they do not incur the highly expensive costs of transporting energy from the hinterlands to the city. Residential solar systems are also predicted in two years to be cheaper than coal- and oil-based energy generation.
In other words, solar panels on houses work because residents use energy under the same roof from where they get their energy. No transportation, no extra costs.
A few other political and economic initiatives, though, have also helped make a distributed network an especially enticing future. Forty-three states have passed legislation allowing for net metering, in which excess residential solar energy is sold to utility companies. The next push will be for states to allow homeowners with solar panels to sell excess energy straight to neighbors rather than through utilities.
In fact, the dream is already in the making.
For Americans that don't own a home or have rooftops capable of supporting solar panels, there are still options to support solar energy. By joining collectives you can save 25 to 30 percent on energy costs.
Meanwhile, the private sector has helped overcome another issue associated with installing rooftop solar panels: upfront costs.
Solar panel loaning and Power Purchase Agreements, in which residents either put up solar panels on a loan or allow companies to put up solar panels on their houses, are very effective because big buyers, rather than residents, pay for the upfront costs, and they also lock in long-term energy rates.
One may wonder why utility companies have not become one of these “big buyers.” But, in certain circumstances, they have.
However, while utilities may be protected when it comes to energy sources like coal, the residential solar panel market is becoming increasingly saturated. Not only are more conventional companies like SolarCity, Sunrun and Sungevity competing to make loans for solar panels, but also, third-party buyers like the military are making loans to military families.
Perhaps the final blow comes from the fact that economic theories demonstrate that as consumers leave utilities, prices will go up, leading to more consumers leaving and creating a downward spiral.
It is not shocking, then, to learn that Morgan Stanley and Morningstar predict residential solar systems to deeply pierce utilities’ share on the solar industry in as little as three years.
Trouble already looms for utility companies in Germany, many steps ahead of the U.S. in green technology. Germany has seen distributed renewable technology, including residential solar panels, soar to 60 percent of all renewable energy, thereby devastating utility companies.
Make no mistake: utilities are going to do their best to hang around in the U.S. They may even tap into the residential solar technologies or convince the government for short-term tariff measures.
Nevertheless, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: rather than a few big clusters, solar panels are going to be both more prevalent and more dispersed. You may even find yourself contributing to this transformation.
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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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