At the southern tip of Manhattan, stockbrokers, tourists, and food vendors hustle within sight of the Statue of Liberty. The Battery, as it’s known, earned its name for the artillery stations that once protected the island’s colonial settlements, but it’s just as fitting a title for the neighborhood where Thomas Edison chose to erect Pearl Street Station, America’s first power plant. Bringing electricity to more than 10,000 streetlights, the Battery served as New York City’s battery until it burned down in 1890.
More than a century later, the neighborhood has once again emerged at the front lines of a new energy revolution. Just seven blocks from the site of Pearl Street Station stand the country’s first buildings mandated to integrate new solar technology into their architecture—an emblem of how solar power is transforming from a darling among environmentalists into a mainstream technology for the masses.
And for places like the Battery, which sits just inches above sea level, the emergence of the environmentally friendly power could not only save its buildings money on their electricity bills but help prevent them from one day being swallowed into the Atlantic.
Solar power hasn’t arrived just yet, but we’re in the midst of its arrival.
Ray Kurzweil, the renowned futurist at Google, believes that the U.S. will meet 100 percent of its electrical energy needs through solar in two decades. It’s a bold prediction, as his tend to be, but it’s not hard to see where he’s coming from.
For decades, scientists have worked to figure out how to capture, convert, and store sunlight at costs that can compete with the price of energy from fossil fuels. Increasingly, their work is bearing the fruit of their labor, as the cost of a silicon photovoltaic cell, which converts sunlight into electricity, has fallen from $76 in 1977 to $0.36 today.
Meanwhile, businesses have helped lower the barriers to mainstream adoption. Installation costs have fallen from $8 per watt in 2008 to less than half that today. As the industry grows, that price—and others along the supply chain—are expected to keep dropping. Combined with solar-friendly tax credits put in place by the Obama administration, America has fostered an environment primed for the growth of solar, which has transformative implications—for business and the environment.
In California, the company SolarCity intends to power homes exclusively through solar energy, effectively replacing the traditional energy grid. At the heart of that plan are cutting-edge lithium ion batteries that store solar power at historically efficient—and cheap—rates. The fast-growing company, chaired by Tesla’s Elon Musk, has been valued at $5.3 billion, and the company recently broke ground on both the largest solar panel factory and largest lithium ion battery factory in the United States, bringing thousands of new jobs to upstate New York and Nevada, respectively.
SolarCity is an early mover, but it’s no outlier. Estimates vary, but analysts predict that investments in renewable energy will reach $630 billion by the end of the next decade. And the International Energy Agency predicts that by 2035, $1.3 trillion will have been invested in solar power and the world will be producing 662 gigawatts of solar energy.
These trends are threatening the fossil fuel industry’s dominance of the energy market. Today, just one percent of the power grid in America is solar-based, but by 2020, that’s predicted to grow to at least ten percent. Large-scale power generation, predicts investment bank USB, “will be the dinosaur of the future energy system: too big, too inflexible, not even relevant for backup power in the long run.”
In a post-hurricane Sandy world, the commercial success of solar energy has the important consequence of also mitigating the threat of global warming-related superstorms. After New York saw Sandy put much of the city, including the Battery, underwater in 2012, it suffered billions of dollars in damages to infrastructure, from its subway lines to the power grid.
As the centers of business and life for billions of people worldwide, cities like New York have the most to lose from such extreme events. But they also have the biggest opportunity to help prevent them from happening more frequently and more powerfully in the future.
Contributing as much as 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, cities are the primary culprits of global warming, and their adoption of new solar technologies could help limit its growth. Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced a goal of 80 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with plans to increase the production of the city’s solar energy eightfold over the next decade, beginning by retrofitting 24 schools across the city.
Meanwhile, in the Battery, the first building required to be designed with solar power in mind has generated its own energy for the past five years, with photovoltaic cells, rather than bricks or glass, making up its exterior. In the tradition of the neighborhood, it’s its own battery. And according to recent restrictions, any new building that goes up in the Battery needs its own battery too.
But for New York City—always a reliable microcosm of the rest of the world—the Battery signals only the beginning of its solar transformation.