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Mighty Earth

By Reynard Loki

Whole Foods bills itself as "America's healthiest grocery store," but what it's doing to the environment is anything but healthy. According to a new report, the chain is helping to drive one of the nation's worst human-made environmental disasters: the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

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A massive dead zone forms in the Gulf of Mexico every year, fed by farm runoff that washes down the Mississippi River. EPA

By Donald Scavia

Scientists have identified a dead zone as large as Florida in the Gulf of Oman, which connects the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf. Around the world there are more than 400 current dead zones in oceans and lakes, where water contains so little oxygen that aquatic life can't survive.

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Residential solar energy companies are helping more and more homeowners upgrade their properties to clean energy sources. Solar energy companies can equip you with the technology you need to harness the amazing power of the sun and reduce your need for fossil fuels. In this article, we'll review some of the most trustworthy providers and installers of solar power.

Our picks for the best solar companies

The first step in the process is researching some of the top companies in the solar industry. Here are the ones that stood out in our research.

Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.

How we chose the best solar energy companies

How did we determine which solar power companies to recommend?

To begin with, we took a deep dive into each company's offerings, assessing them for the following criteria:

  • Range of services offered
  • Pricing/affordability and financing options
  • Extent of service area
  • Solar panel efficiency
  • Warranty
  • Temperature coefficient (e.g., how much high temperatures affect efficiency)

Additionally, we weighed membership and certification by professional associations like the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Affiliation with these groups is a good indicator that a solar energy company is reputable, and that their work is up to the highest standards within the industry.

The best solar energy companies

schmidt-z / Getty Images

With these criteria in mind, consider our picks for the best solar panel providers and installers in the industry.

SunPower

If you're looking for a company that can walk you through the process of upgrading to solar power for an easy and convenient experience, look no further than to SunPower. The company offers:

  • A "design studio" app, allowing you to safely and seamlessly design your own solar power system so that you can see a visual of what the finished product will look like once installed.
  • Online calculators that make it easy for you to determine about how much electricity you will save once you upgrade to solar panels.
  • Virtual consultations, allowing you to chat one-on-one with a solar power expert and to ask any questions you might have.

SunPower offers leading solar panels and energy storage technology to homeowners across dozens of states. And, they are also the preferred solar partner of many major businesses, including Walmart, FedEx, and Lowes.

Why buy: SunPower is a reliable solar energy company with an impressive tech portfolio and an extremely easy, intuitive process.

SunRun

Upgrading to solar power can seem a little intimidating, but SunRun is out to bring simplicity. Their approach makes it extremely straightforward to select a custom solar energy plan for your household. Here's what to know about SunRun:

  • They offer virtual consultations with solar energy experts, making it simple to explore your options and determine which solar set-up is right for your home energy needs.
  • Each system they design is completely customized to address the customer's needs. SunRun doesn't do "one size fits all" solar equipment options.
  • Their guarantee, the best in the industry, offers extraordinary peace of mind that your solar system will prove durable and reliable.
  • SunRun also leads in terms of flexible financing options, making solar power accessible and affordable.

Why buy: With SunRun, the name of the game is customization. This is one of the best solar installation companies to turn to for solar power solutions that are truly made with you in mind.

Tesla

You probably associate Tesla with their electric vehicles, but did you know that the company also produces high-efficiency solar panels? Depending on your needs and your budget, Tesla can hook you up with an array of solar panels or even a solar roof, making it easy to cut electricity costs and power your home via the sun's vital energy.

Some fast facts about choosing solar power from Tesla:

  • They offer a price match guarantee and affordable financing options.
  • Their advanced solar panel technology offers a low profile, a sleek style, and long-term durability.
  • Home battery backups allow you to save solar power and then access it on demand, whenever you need it.

Why buy: Tesla offers sophisticated solar products for what the company claims is the lowest price of any national provider, which they back with a price-match guarantee. Plus, all of their solar panels come with a solid 25-year performance guarantee.

LG

LG is another well-known tech company that is also a leader in solar energy. Some of their solar panels use a bifacial solar module that captures energy from two directions to increase their efficiency. While they are a solar panel manufacturer, they can also help you with the installation process by finding an LG Pro installer in your area.

  • They offer an online "solar concierge" service that allows you to evaluate your home energy needs and to compare different options for going solar.
  • LG offers a 25-year warranty, not only on their technology but also on the work their of their solar installers.
  • They offer a range of solar panels and supporting products, and they supply you with plenty of information to make a fully informed choice.

Why buy: LG is a company that knows technological innovation. Their award-winning solar energy products are reliably efficient, well-priced, and designed for maximum efficiency.

Panasonic

Panasonic has one of the most impressive tech portfolios in the solar energy industry. Their products boast some of the highest conversion efficiency rates, along with the lowest degradation rates. And they back everything with a generous warranty.

Some additional reasons to choose Panasonic:

  • They offer a range of solar panels to choose from. With Panasonic, you'll find that you have plenty of options.
  • They also provide a lot of great online support and consumer education, ensuring you'll get the most out of your solar technology.

Why buy: Panasonic is a solar panel company with products that are tough to beat. Both their pricing and warranties are very appealing, and their HIT high-performance solar panels offer some of the best power conversion rates of any product.

Vivint

Vivint is a company that offers a full spectrum of services, including solar power consultation, design, and installation. A few reasons why homeowners trust their solar power needs to the Vivint team:

  • Everything Vivint does is customized. They tailor everything to fit your roof and to help you achieve your home energy goals.
  • They make the entire process simple, handling all of the little details for you. This includes securing permits, filing the right paperwork, etc.
  • They emphasize safety, using only the highest caliber of solar panels and backing everything with a world-class warranty.

Why buy: Vivint is noteworthy for their focus on customization, their commitment to safety, and their one-stop-shop solar power solutions. In addition to solar panel installation, they also offer other specialized technology, including solar-powered electric vehicle chargers.

Enphase

Enphase is another company that stands out, both for their robust technology as well as for their commitment to customization. Their microinverter technology makes their solar system safer by reducing the likelihood of arc fault fires.

  • They design their solar technology with safety in mind, including fire safeguards that other companies can't match.
  • Their solar panels are built for durability and can hold up even through the most extreme kinds of weather.
  • Enphase uses smart technology to update itself; all you need to do is connect it to your home Internet.
  • They also have one of the best apps in the solar industry, making it simple to monitor your home energy use.

Why buy: Enphase is a company of innovators, and their solar portfolio has a lot to offer. Their system is also modular, meaning you can easily add more panels to your system as you need them.

Canadian Solar

This solar power provider has won recognition not just for their excellent technology, but also for their sincere commitment to sustainability and to ecological stewardship. And don't let the name throw you off: Though Canadian Solar is based in Canada, they provide solar power solutions in the U.S. and other countries.

Some additional facts about Canadian Solar:

  • They offer a wide range of products, from energy converters to storage solutions.
  • Their solar panels boast exceedingly high energy efficiency rates.
  • Canadian Solar has won a number of awards for its first-class innovations, and one of their products even set a world record for conversion efficiency in 2020.

Why buy: This company has a proven track record of technological excellence, plus a real commitment to ecological stewardship. They also closely monitor their supply chain to ensure that no goods or materials used in their products come from prohibited forms of labor.

First Solar

First Solar boasts an impressive track record of advocacy for solar power and for renewable energy sources. And, thankfully, they back their advocacy with some excellent solar technologies.

A few reasons to choose First Solar solar panels:

  • Their technology offers an outstanding temperature coefficient, meaning they won't lose performance during high temperatures.
  • Their solar cells are among the most reliable and most efficient in the clean energy sector.
  • First Solar also offers a lot of post-purchase, post-installation help, as needed.

Why buy: First Solar is a great option for anyone who's serious about renewable energy, and who wants the best performance from their solar panels.

Go Solar

The biggest drawback to Go Solar is that, right now, their work is limited to just a few states. But if you happen to live in that part of the country, you're in luck. Go Solar's panels are uniquely calibrated to take advantage of the western region's abundant sunlight. Some additional reasons to pick Go Solar include:

  • They offer free home solar assessments.
  • They custom-design solar systems to meet the needs of your home.
  • They have some of the most trusted installers in the solar power industry.

Why buy: For solar solutions that are tailored to the climate of the American West, definitely consider Go Solar. Plus, with their Give Solar International partnership, they give an equivalent solar panel system to a family in Uganda for each system sold.

How does a solar energy system work?

schmidt-z / Getty Images

As you explore the different options for embracing solar power, it may be helpful to have a baseline understanding of how solar energy systems actually function.

Generally speaking, solar energy systems involve solar panels installed on your roof. These panels absorb the sun's energy, storing it in what are known as photovoltaic cells. These cells convert the solar energy into direct current (DC) energy, then use an inverter to convert that DC energy into alternate current (AC) electricity. AC electricity is what you need to power all your home appliances.

It's important to note that, before you purchase solar panels, it's worthwhile to meet with a solar energy consultant who can tell you more about how many panels your home will require, and also to let you know how those panels should be ideally positioned on the roof.

One more note: If you're concerned about the affordability of solar power, it's important to remember that most solar energy companies provide a host of options, including flexible financing and solar lease options for a system rather than purchase it outright. As you talk with different solar energy companies, don't hesitate to inquire about these leasing and financing options.

Benefits of solar energy

Installing solar panels on your home can yield a number of benefits. Here are just a few examples.

Cleaner energy

One of the main reasons why homeowners choose to install solar cells is that it allows them to truly embrace clean energy sources. Rather than depend on fossil fuels and power plants, you can power your home with renewable energy that comes straight from the sun. This can be a highly effective way to minimize your environmental footprint.

Solar tax credits and rebates

There are a number of ways in which choosing renewable energy can save you money, starting with the fact that there are so many rebates and tax credits available. Essentially, both the federal government and many state governments want to encourage people to "go green" as much as possible, and they will make it worth your while by allowing you to claim these important tax incentives. Some utility companies also offer rebates that can help pay for the upfront costs of solar projects.

Lower electricity bills

Of course, embracing solar power will also help you save money by slashing your electricity bills. Most solar energy companies offer online calculators that allow you to see for yourself how much money you'll save over time, simply by changing to a renewable energy source. There is also an option called a power purchase agreement (PPA) that can allow you to host a solar or renewable energy system from a utility provider in exchange for lowered energy rates. If your solar panel system generates excess energy, the utility will then purchase that energy from you in the form of a net metering credit on your bill.

Make a smart choice about solar power

There are obviously a lot of perks to choosing solar energy for your home. And yet, it can also be a rather daunting process, simply because there are so many solar energy companies to choose from.

Using our guidelines and rankings, start doing your due diligence, seeking the solar power company that's right for you. Remember to look for a company that's well-regarded within the industry and get a consultation before you buy. Always be sure to ask some direct questions about the financing options that are available to you.

Josh Hurst is a journalist, critic, and essayist. He lives in Knoxville, TN, with his wife and three sons. His writing on natural health, nutrition, and supplements has appeared in Health, Shape, and Remedy Review.

Yes, Houston, we have a problem: Our oceans are dying.

As the brilliant futurist Buckminster Fuller used to point out, our Spaceship Earth is hurtling through space at a great speed.

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Earth Policy Institute

By Janet Larsen and J. Matthew Roney

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The world quietly reached a milestone in the evolution of the human diet in 2011. For the first time in modern history, world farmed fish production topped beef production. The gap widened in 2012, with output from fish farming—also called aquaculture—reaching a record 66 million tons, compared with production of beef at 63 million tons. And 2013 may well be the first year that people eat more fish raised on farms than caught in the wild. More than just a crossing of lines, these trends illustrate the latest stage in a historic shift in food production—a shift that at its core is a story of natural limits.

As the global demand for animal protein grew more than fivefold over the second half of the twentieth century, humans began to press against the productivity constraints of the world’s rangelands and oceans. Annual beef production climbed from 19 million tons in 1950 to more than 50 million tons in the late 1980s. Over the same period, the wild fish catch ballooned from 17 million tons to almost 90 million tons. But since the late 1980s, the growth in beef production has slowed, and the reported wild fish catch has remained essentially flat.

The bottom line is that getting much more food from natural systems may not be possible. Much of the world’s grassland is stocked at or beyond capacity, and most of the world’s fisheries are fished to their limits or already crashing. Overstocked rangelands become obvious as the loss of protective vegetation leads to soil degradation, which at its worst can cause punishing dust and sand storms. Overexploited fisheries are less readily visible, but fishing patterns over time reveal that more effort is required to achieve the same size catch as in years past. Boats are using more fuel and traveling to more remote and deeper waters to bring in their haul. Anglers are pulling up smaller fish, and populations of some of the most popular food fish have collapsed.

Historically, people’s taste in eating animal protein was largely shaped by where they lived. In places with extensive grasslands, like in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina and Australia, people gravitated toward grazing livestock. Along coasts and on islands, as in Japan, wild fish tended to be the protein staple. Today, with little room for expanding the output from rangelands and the seas, producing more beef and fish for a growing and increasingly affluent world population has meant relying on feedlots for fattening cattle and on ponds, nets and pens for growing fish.

While open waters and grasslands can be self-sustaining if managed carefully, raising fish and livestock in concentrated operations requires inputs. Grain and soybeans have been inserted into the protein production food chain. Cattle consume seven pounds of grain or more to produce an additional pound of beef. This is twice as high as the grain rations for pigs, and over three times those of poultry.

Fish are far more efficient, typically taking less than two pounds of feed to add another pound of weight. Pork and poultry are the most widely eaten forms of animal protein worldwide, but farmed fish output is increasing the fastest. Average annual growth rates over the last five years have mirrored the relative efficiency of feed use, with the global production of farmed fish growing by nearly six percent a year, poultry by four percent, and pork by 1.7 percent—fast outpacing beef, which barely increased at all.

As grain and soybean prices have risen well above historical levels in recent years, the cost of producing grain-eating livestock has also gone up. Higher prices have nudged consumers away from the least-efficient feeders. This means more farmed fish and less beef. In the U.S., where the amount of meat in people's diets has been falling since 2004, average consumption of beef per person has dropped by more than 13 percent and that of chicken by five percent. U.S. fish consumption has also dropped, but just by two percent.

Beyond economic considerations, health and environmental concerns are also leading many people in industrial countries to reduce their beef intake. Meanwhile, fish are touted as healthy alternatives (save for the largest types, which have accumulated mercury from environmental pollution). Diets heavy in red meat have been associated with a higher risk for heart disease and colon cancer, among other ailments. Beef production has garnered a negative reputation for having a large carbon footprint and for destroying habitat, notably in the Brazilian Amazon. And excess nitrogen fertilizer applied to the fields of feed corn grown to satisfy the world’s livestock runs off into streams and rivers, sometimes flowing to coastal waters where it creates large algal blooms and low-oxygen “dead zones” where fish cannot survive.

While it is only recently that the limitations of natural systems have emerged on a global scale, the practice of aquaculture dates back millennia. China, which accounts for 62 percent of the world’s farmed fish, has long cultivated different types of carp that eat different things—phytoplankton, zooplankton, grass or detritus—together in a mini ecosystem. Today carp and their relatives are still the mainstay of Chinese aquaculture, making up nearly half the country’s output. Filter-feeding mollusks, like clams and oysters, account for close to a third. Carp, catfish and other species are also grown in Chinese rice paddies, where their waste can fertilize the grain crop. This is also practiced in Indonesia, Thailand and Egypt.

Unfortunately, not all aquaculture works this way. Some of the farmed fish that are quickly gaining popularity, like salmon and shrimp, are carnivorous species that eat fishmeal or fish oil produced from forage fish from the wild. Yet most forage fish stocks (think anchovies, herrings and sardines), which typically make up about a third of the world oceanic fish catch, are dangerously overharvested. Fish farmers are working to reduce the amount of fish meal and oil in their rations, but in the rush to meet ever-expanding world demand, the share of farmed fish being fed has increased because they can reach market size quickly. Norway, the world’s top farmed salmon producer, now imports more fish oil than any other country. China, the world’s leading shrimp producer, takes in some 30 percent of the fishmeal traded each year.

As cattle ranches have displaced biologically rich rainforests, fish farms have displaced mangrove forests that provide important fish nursery habitats and protect coasts during storms. Worldwide, aquaculture is thought to be responsible for more than half of all mangrove loss, mostly for shrimp farming. In the Philippines, some two thirds of the country’s mangroves—more than 100,000 hectares—have been removed for shrimp farming over the last 40 years.

Another problem with intensive confined animal feeding operations of all kinds, whether for farmed fish or for cattle, is not what gets extracted from the environment but what gets put in it. On a small-scale farm with livestock, animal waste can be used to fertilize crops. But putting large numbers of animals together transforms waste from an asset into a liability. Along with the vast quantities of waste, the antibiotic and parasite-killing chemicals used to deal with the unwanted disease and infestations that can spread easily in crowded conditions also can end up in surrounding ecosystems. The overuse of antibiotics in livestock operations can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, threatening both human and animal health. In the U.S., for instance, 80 percent of antibiotics use is in agriculture—and often not for treating sick animals but for promoting rapid weight gain.

Thus the solutions to our collision with the limitations of the natural systems that have long provided food have created their own host of problems. On a per person basis, beef consumption—now averaging less than 20 pounds (8.9 kilograms) each year globally—is unlikely to rebound to the 24 pounds eaten in the 1970s. But annual world fish consumption per person of 42 pounds—up from 25 pounds in the 1970s—is set to keep rising. With the additional fish coming from farms rather than the seas, the urgency of making aquaculture sustainable is clear.

On the fish feed front, fishmeal producers are incorporating more seafood scraps into their products; today roughly a third of fishmeal is made up of food fish trimmings and other by-products. And some fish farmers are substituting livestock and poultry processing wastes and plant-based feeds for fishmeal and oil, which does not sound particularly appetizing, but does reduce pressure on wild stocks. From a sustainability standpoint, however, it would be preferable to shift the balance back in favor of farmed fish raised without feeds based on food grains, oilseeds and protein from other animals.

Our global population of seven billion people, growing by nearly 80 million per year, cannot escape the limits of nature. To live within Earth’s natural boundaries requires rethinking meat and fish production practices to respect ecology. Most important, it means reducing demand by slowing population growth and, for those of us already living high on the food chain, eating less meat, milk, eggs and fish.

Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD and FACTORY FARMING pages for more related news on this topic.

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