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Virgin Atlantic has successfully flown and landed a commercial flight using aviation fuel partly made of waste carbon gas from a steel mill.

The Boeing 747 took off from Orlando, Florida and landed in London's Gatwick airport on Wednesday morning.

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Harvesting sugarcane in Brazil. Jonathan Wilkins / CC BY-SA

By Deepak Kumar, Stephen P. Long and Vijay Singh

The aviation industry produces two percent of global human-induced carbon dioxide emissions. This share may seem relatively small—for perspective, electricity generation and home heating account for more than 40 percent—but aviation is one of the world's fastest-growing greenhouse gas sources. Demand for air travel is projected to double in the next 20 years.

Airlines are under pressure to reduce their carbon emissions, and are highly vulnerable to global oil price fluctuations. These challenges have spurred strong interest in biomass-derived jet fuels. Bio-jet fuel can be produced from various plant materials, including oil crops, sugar crops, starchy plants and lignocellulosic biomass, through various chemical and biological routes. However, the technologies to convert oil to jet fuel are at a more advanced stage of development and yield higher energy efficiency than other sources.

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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.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has been nominated to serve as U .S. Ambassador to China in Donald Trump's Administration, a pick that has some of Big Ag's biggest players celebrating.

Donald Trump has chosen Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as ambassador to China. Twitter

Branstad is the longest-serving governor in U.S. history with 22 non-consecutive years and going under his belt. During his tenure, he has built significant relationships with Iowa's agribusinesses and has helped spur trade of the state's beef, pork and soy products to Asian consumers, and once struck a $4.3 billion deal with Chinese officials for Iowa's exports.

This past October, China signed a $2.1 billion deal for Iowa soybeans to feed Chinese livestock. In November, less than a week after Trump's presidential win, Branstad traveled to China to promote Iowa beef and pork. It was his seventh such trip to China as governor.

The Republican governor's friendship with Chinese president Xi Jinping goes back three decades after Xi visited rural Iowa in 1985.

"Ensuring the countries with the two largest economies and two largest militaries in the world maintain a collaborative and cooperative relationship is needed more now than ever," Branstad said after Trump's announcement.

At a Wednesday meeting in St. Louis with United Soybean Board and the American Soybean Association, Monsanto chief technology officer Robb Fraley praised the president-elect's latest top-level pick.

"[Fraley] said Branstad's past work on behalf of biotech acceptance and advocacy for U.S. agriculture makes him an excellent choice for the role," according to Farm Journal editor Susan Luke.

China, Monsanto and Iowa are all linked by the humble soybean. Monsanto controls 90 percent of soybean production in the U.S. and Iowa happens to be a top soybean grower, with 97 percent of the state's soybeans grown from genetically modified (GMO) seeds. China is the world's largest soybean consumer, importing about 25 percent of all U.S. soy produced.

Soybeans sold to China are "the largest U.S. agricultural export as their value rose from about $400,000 annually during 1996-97 to as high as $14.5 billion in 2014," Fred Gale, U.S. Department of Agriculture agricultural economist told ChinaDaily USA.

China's booming population is driving increased meat consumption and increased imports of corn and soybeans to feed livestock. Incidentally, China has banned the cultivation of GMO crops, as Chinese consumers are generally fearful of the food's perceived health risks. Rather, the country buys GMO soy for cooking oil or animal feed. But in recent years, China has pushed for the domestic commercialization of GMO soybeans, spending billions on research. President Xi himself called for the domestic cultivation of GMO crops in 2014.

Branstad's nomination was also praised by Iowa Corn Growers Association president Kurt Hora, noting that China does not just buy corn to feed its animals, it's also a large buyer of U.S. ethanol.

"China is an important market for U.S. corn in all forms including the second-largest purchaser of U.S. ethanol last marketing year; and a critical buyer of U.S. distiller's dried grains (DDGS). The China/Hong Kong market is also the third largest customer for both U.S. pork and beef exports," Hora said.

Corn ethanol has been touted as an energy alternative, but the biofuel "might be worse than petroleum when total greenhouse gas emissions are considered," Scientific American explained.

Mother Jones's Tom Philpott called Trump's choice of Branstad a "gift" to Big Ag, highlighting the governor's close ties to Bruce Rastetter, the CEO of Summit Agriculture Group, a major Iowa pork and ethanol producer, who contributed $164,875 towards Branstad's run for governor in 2010. Eldon Roth, CEO of Beef Products International, contributed another $152,000.

Not only that, "back in 2011, the governor also tapped Rastetter's brother Brent, who then ran a business constructing industrial-scale hog-rearing facilities, to the state's Environmental Protection Commission. Branstad also signed into law one of those infamous "ag gag" bills, championed by Big Ag, that make it a crime to secretly document conditions inside livestock farms," Philpott wrote.

Ronnie Cummins, the director of the Organic Consumers Association, criticized Trump's latest pick.

"[The selection of] Iowa Governor Terry Branstad for U.S. Ambassador to China is good news for the factory farm cartel, the ethanol lobby, Big Pharma Bayer and Monsanto, but very bad news for organic consumers and farmers, as well as everyone in the world who cares about justice, healthy food and soils, the environment, humane treatment of animals and re-stabilizing our dangerously out-of-control climate," Cummins told EcoWatch.

Ken Roseboro, the editor and publisher of the Organic & Non-GMO Report, agreed.

"As an Iowan, I've seen that Governor Terry Branstad has been a big supporter of factory farms in Iowa, which threaten the environment, human health and quality of life for Iowans," Roseboro told EcoWatch. "His appointment as Ambassador to China is likely to accelerate that unsustainable trend since China is deeply involved in Iowa's pork production and factory farms."

Health and environmental advocates have been very critical of Trump's recent slew of nominations for his incoming administration. Just yesterday, the president-elect announced his pick of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 350.org's Executive Director May Boeve called Pruitt a fossil fuel "puppet."

"Donald Trump appears destined for the Guinness Book of Records for appointing the most corrupt and dangerous administration officials in U.S. history," Cummins told EcoWatch. "If I were a Reality TV host, my message to Donald and his cronies would be clear: You're fired."

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Environmental Working Group

EWG Senior Vice President for Governental Affairs Scott Faber testified before the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power.

The federal requirement to blend corn ethanol into gasoline is polluting America’s air and water, contributing to climate change, hurting consumers and hindering the development of cleaner biofuels, Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president for government affairs, told a Congressional panel today.

Faber’s remarks came during testimony before the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power. The two-day hearing focused on the Renewable Fuel Standard, also known as RFS.

“It’s time to face the facts: the RFS is producing too many ‘bad biofuels’ that increase greenhouse gas emissions, increase food and gasoline prices and pollute our air and water—and not enough ‘good biofuels,’” Faber said.

“Once heralded as a way to combat climate change, the RFS has actually increased greenhouse emissions by encouraging farmers to plow up more than 23 million acres of land—an area the size of Indiana—releasing more carbon and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.”

Faber highlighted a lifecycle analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that found that the rapid expansion of corn ethanol production raised carbon emissions in 2012 and will continue to do so for years to come.

Corn ethanol is produced overwhelmingly in plants powered by natural gas or coal, which increases lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent and 66 percent respectively compared to gasoline. Most of this production is exempt from greenhouse gas reduction requirements under a provision of 2007 legislation that expanded federal biofuels mandates.

Faber also noted that growing corn for ethanol requires huge amounts of fertilizers and other farm chemicals that ultimately wash off fields and pollute nearby waterways. This pollution contributes to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, a vast area of low oxygen that cannot sustain marine life.

“Advanced biofuels made from non-food sources are promising alternatives, but in a market dominated by corn ethanol, progress is too slow,” Faber testified. “To allow second-generation fuels to gain a foothold in the marketplace, Congress must phase out the corn ethanol mandate. There is no simply reason to think RFS, as currently designed, is providing a sufficiently powerful incentive to develop these fuels.”

Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.

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Environmental Working Group

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) decision to allow the sale of gasoline blended with up to 15 percent ethanol will be a nightmare for car owners who improperly fuel their gas tanks. Every major automaker has warned that millions of vehicle warranties will be voided if drivers fill up with E15.

The approval of E15 for use in vehicles manufactured after 2000 means consumers will pull into gas stations that could have as many as four pumps with different kinds of fuel—one for E10 (up to 10 percent ethanol); one for E15; possibly one for E85 (between 70 and 85 percent ethanol); and maybe one for old-fashioned gasoline. Some gas station pumps might not even have labels specifying which ethanol blend is which because not every state requires them.

"It is going to be extremely confusing and dangerous for consumers," said Sheila Karpf, a legislative analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). "If they make a mistake and put E15 into an older car or small engine, there's a good chance they'll ruin their engine and the manufacturer's warranty won't cover the damage."

To advance consumer safety, EWG analysts have created an Ethanol Blends Guide and Fact Sheet to help drivers choose the right fuel for their vehicles. The analysis provides more information about the new E15 label requirements.

Ethanol is more corrosive and burns hotter than gasoline, properties that could cause some engines to stall, misfire and overheat. Fuel with higher ethanol blends emits more nitrous oxide and formaldehyde than gasoline, lowers mileage and damages fuel tanks and pumps.

"Instead of approving a fuel that will pose health and safety hazards and damage engines, the U.S. should invest in energy efficiency measures and research and development for truly sustainable biofuels," said Karpf. "The high cost of replacing or repairing engines will be tacked onto corn ethanol's other costs—including higher food prices, increased soil erosion and polluted water supplies."

To be safe, EWG recommends that consumers stick with E10 or regular unleaded gasoline if they can find it. If gas pumps are not labeled, consumers should ask a service station employee for more information about the fuel and the amount of ethanol it contains. Consumers should check with their engine manufacturers or mechanics to find out if their cars or small engines can safely run on E15 or other ethanol blends.

Here are other tips for consumers to cut the economic and environmental costs of driving:

  • Maintain your vehicle properly:
    - Keep tires inflated to the recommended pressure.
    - Use the right grade of motor oil (check the manual).
    - Replace air filters when you change oil (your engine will run more efficiently).
    - Replace worn spark plugs.
    - Repair leaks from engine oil or other fluids.
  • Drive the speed limit and don't accelerate too fast or brake too hard.
  • Minimize air conditioner use.
  • Turn your engine off when idling for long periods.
  • Get rid of excess weight in your vehicle.
  • Drive less.
  • Walk, run, or bike.

For more information, click here.

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