How to See the Future

The debate over the merits of renewable energy is over. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, the advantages of replacing coal, oil, and gas with clean, renewable energy sources come under the heading of glaringly obvious.

Our challenge then, is not to convince people that renewable energy makes sense, but to help them see for themselves that the wave of the future is already breaking all around them. And although that seems like it should be easy, people have spent their entire lives in a fossil-fuel economy that has an illusion of permanence that can be hard to shake off. But The Grid is not The Matrix. People don't need a mysterious red pill to have their eyes opened to a world that's powered by renewable energy. It can be as simple as looking out the window.

Fact: Once someone sees solar panels appear on their neighbor's roof, they are far more likely to go solar themselves. This viral solar effect has been documented by researchers. One house gets solar and then it spreads outward from there. Despite the fact that most people agree that renewable energy is a good idea, seeing it happen in their own neighborhood somehow makes it more real.

This viral effect is helping to drive dramatic double-digit growth for rooftop solar installations year after year after year. Last year the U.S. set a record for rooftop solar installations, and this year is expected to have about twice as many. It took 40 years for solar to be installed on 1 million rooftops in the United States. We should hit the next million within two years.

And there are ways to make this growth happen even faster. One is through public awareness campaigns like the Sierra Club's Ready for 100, which just launched a national tour of nine cities across the U.S. to showcase the demand for clean, renewable energy. Last week, I attended the first one, in Aspen, Colorado (a town that has already achieved 100 percent renewable electricity), and it was fantastic.

But here's an idea: What if we could supercharge that rooftop solar viral effect by making it easy to see the solar potential of every home? To that end, the Sierra Club is collaborating with Google to help map the solar possibilities of residential rooftops across the U.S. Google's solar mapping tool is called Project Sunroof, and it's both powerful and incredibly easy to use. Enter your address into the mapping tool and -- bam! -- you'll see your home's solar potential based on your roof’s position, shading, and usable hours of sunlight each year. At the same time, you'll get an estimate of your potential energy bill savings, details about different financing options, and next steps to explore making solar work for you.

Project Sunroof is currently available in 43 states (not yet included are Texas, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Idaho, South Dakota, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alaska, and the District of Columbia). If you haven't already gone solar and are curious about how much you could save, you should check it out. Fighting climate change isn’t just an obligation; it’s an opportunity to create the future we want.