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This summer, consider solar 

Let the sunshine in

In this time of coal ash spills, increased air pollution and climate change, the environmental problems we're facing can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, there's a solution of infinite possibilities.

Solar energy is an abundant natural resource that we are only beginning to take advantage of as a country, and North Carolina has huge solar potential waiting to be fully utilized. The state gets twice as much sunlight as Germany, the current world leader in solar energy generation. In 2013, we had the 3rd-highest rate of new solar capacity added to our grid. This jump made us the 4th-largest state for solar energy production.

In order to tap into this potential, programs like Solarize Charlotte are popping up across the state to make it easier for homeowners to afford and install solar panels. Solarize Charlotte, where I serve as project assistant and canvassing director, is a new nonprofit that aims to make solar panels as a home energy source accessible to the public to ease our reliance on fossil fuels, North Carolina's primary sources of energy. We're trying to bring cleaner and cheaper electricity to communities in Mecklenburg, Gaston, Union, and Cabarrus counties.

Our program works like this: Homeowners can research and request a free assessment at www.cleanerischeaper.com. An installer will come to your house, assess your needs and pair you with a system. Installation takes about a week and includes a new electric meter that allows any excess energy to be sold back to the utility and enter into the grid. This means that every home solar system helps reduce the surrounding community's reliance on fossil fuels that North Carolina relies on to produce energy, including coal. Home solar systems are still connected to the grid, so there's no danger of not producing enough energy.

The financing of a new home solar system used to be very expensive, but now federal and state income tax credits give back as much as 65 percent of the upfront cost. On top of these tax incentives, nonprofit programs like Solarize, which is in the middle of its sign-up period, offer group discounts to those who sign up within a certain time period. That combined with tax credits means participants could pay as little as 25 percent of the starting price. An average-size 4kW system, which normally retails for around $17,000, could cost about $4,800.

Solarize programs also partner with banks to offer low-interest financing and no-money-down investment options to participants who need help covering the upfront costs. Advocates say home owners begin seeing a reduction in energy bills immediately. Even homeowners who are unsure if they can afford a solar system are encouraged to reach out to Solarize Charlotte and talk about options.

In addition to all the environmental and health benefits of solar energy — chief among them reducing our reliance on dirty fossil fuels — there is a wider economic benefit. The industry provides over 140,000 jobs in the U.S. that cannot be exported. In 2013, solar employment grew 10 times faster than the national average. Every investment in solar energy today is an investment in these jobs, as well as an investment in making solar energy increasingly accessible to people of every income level.

If you are unable to install solar on your own home, you can still get involved with the program and help raise awareness of the benefits of solar energy. House by house, volunteer by volunteer, we can all help spur the solar revolution.

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