At first glance, 2023 looks to be a shining year for the solar sector.
The world’s first production-ready, long-range solar electric car—the Lightyear 0, set to roll onto roads later this year—is a sleek, gleaming streak of silver and black able to convert sunlight into about 43 miles of daily range in addition to what it gleans from plugging in. Meanwhile, the Mojave Desert will host the $1.2 billion Gemini solar-and-storage project, a dizzying array of panels stretching in a vast diagonal across the southeastern tip of Nevada. With completion set for the end of 2023, the project is slated to power Las Vegas during peak energy generation periods.
Less glamorously, an energy crisis continues to sweep the planet. Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine is the foaming crest on an economically devastating wave of extreme weather events, a deadly pandemic, and a failing global energy system. Does solar energy hold the power to calm this tidal wave?
Although solar’s been on the ascendancy for over 30 years, things kicked up a notch in 2022. The European Union saw enough solar tech installed to power 12.4 million homes—almost 50% more than in 2021—and in April, global solar hit one terawatt (one trillion watts) of capacity.
But this growth risks leaving supply chain governance, equity, and energy justice in the dust. If solar is to serve everyone in 2023 and beyond, these three must lead the charge.
By 2050, energy captured from the wind and sun could be generating nearly 70% of global electricity. Within 10 years, it could become the leading source of U.S. energy. Solar may be India’s cheapest energy source in a decade’s time. The U.K. government has set a target of achieving 100% renewable power by 2035, including tripling its solar capacity by 2030. And Africa—the continent upon which most of the sun’s energy is bestowed but currently holds just 1% of solar generation capacity—could produce almost a third of its energy from solar by 2050.
Between the lines of these statistics glimmers something greater than the sum of their parts. As I write, I imagine paneled waves of silver tracing their way over distant farmland hills, draping themselves over the roofs of tower blocks and community centers. I can’t take credit for this image: it’s the product of hours spent lost online, exploring solarpunk visions of a world where fossil fuels stay in the ground.
The solarpunk movement, as defined by the Solarpunk Anarchist blog in 2016, “attempts to negate the dominant idea [that] grips popular consciousness: that the future must be grim.” Born from a humble 2008 blog post, solarpunk is an alternate reality that’s simultaneously ancient and futuristic, its hypothetical inhabitants (us) connected to something greater and more eternal than ourselves in a way that feels tantalizingly within reach. In a 2019 paper, Dr. Rhys Williams, a lecturer in energy and environmental humanities at the University of Glasgow who has written about solarpunk, called this solar power’s “just over the horizon” quality: its capacity to invoke dreams of an eco-centered utopia that somehow feels forever around the corner.
“We’ve been fed the assumption that oil, coal, and gas give us energy security for many years, but the Ukraine crisis shows us that’s not the case.”
Solar has long been connected to dreams beyond our reach. The ability to capture photons from our local star and use them to power devices was first explored in the 19th century, but silicon-powered solar cells—like those sold commercially today—weren’t created until the 1950s. In 1956, the cost of one watt of solar energy was $1,825: a price high enough that one of the only viable commercial applications for solar panels was satellites, which require a reliable power source as they spin through the freezing darkness of space.
But as the satellite market expanded and businesses began to get in on the action, panels’ costs plummeted. Since 1976, each time solar capacity has doubled, there’s been a corresponding drop in the price of panels of around 20%. (Nowadays, one watt of solar-powered electricity can cost as little as 70 cents.)
A further boost for solar came, fittingly, with the dawn of a new millennium when Germany’s government passed a law to encourage renewable energy generation. First, Europe’s solar market began to flourish. Then, Asia’s followed suit—particularly in China, which now produces nearly three-quarters of the world’s panels. And U.S. solar is set to receive a massive boost thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, a federal law whose striking features include a $60 billion investment into clean energy manufacturing.
The sun pours more energy into our planet every hour than we’re able to consume in an entire year. Harnessing that power is a dream that seems to be edging closer to reality. It’s also a key component of securing reliable renewable energy, which grows more vital with every climate change-driven freak storm or heat wave that hits headlines.
The barriers, however, are both pragmatic and political. Solar panels work better under clear skies, limiting their potential territory. Existing panels are also limited in how much sunlight they can convert because most photons that hit them are reflected or their energy lost as heat: a typical roof-mounted solar panel can only convert around 20% of the sunlight it receives into electricity.
“Why have we stuck with the energy sources people were using hundreds of years ago? In any other sector, it would be unthinkable to use hundred-year-old technology.”
And solar is fighting for territory against a formidable opponent: a fossil fuel industry that has opposed efforts to expand renewables at every stage, desperate to maintain its grip on the energy market. In the U.S., over 100 local ordinances have blocked new wind and solar projects as of 2021. While some of these bans appear to be genuine community decisions, watchdogs believe others are the result of covert anti-renewable lobbying actions by individuals and companies with links to fossil fuel big business.
When I spoke via Zoom to Raphael Heffron, energy justice expert and former professor in global energy law at the University of Dundee, he was wrapped in a thick gray fleece: heating is too expensive for him to put on in the afternoon.
“We’ve been fed the assumption that oil, coal, and gas give us energy security for many years,” he said, “but the Ukraine crisis shows us that’s not the case. Every time there’s a big economic shock, we all experience higher energy prices and poverty.” A study published in 2017 found that more developed economies weren’t insulated against these shocks, but transitioning to diversified renewables was likely to be the one thing capable of cushioning the blow.
“In all other walks of life, we’re encouraged to diversify, not to put all our eggs in one basket,” Heffron said. “So why have we not diversified for so long in the energy sector? Why have we stuck with the energy sources people were using hundreds of years ago? In any other sector, it would be unthinkable to use hundred-year-old technology.”
Dr. Kirsten Jenkins, energy and environment lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, sat haloed in a shaft of sunlight on my laptop screen as she explained that no matter where a solar array is being built, three questions need to be asked: who owns it, who can access its power, and who’s being exploited to make it.
Silicon, silver, and aluminum are several of the materials required to produce solar panels. Their extraction can be politically and environmentally fraught: mining has contaminated land and rivers of Indigenous communities, and human rights groups have alleged that Chinese work transfer programs have used forced labor in Xinjiang to obtain polysilicon, a form of silicon used in solar panels.
When supply chains stretch like snakes around the globe, it’s easy for parts of them to fall into shadow. In August, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that “serious human rights violations” were implicated in labor chains in Xinjiang province. Although China has denied the allegations, the detailed accounts of journalists and lack of independent audits mean that it’s likely we have the labor of enslaved people to thank for polysilicon coming out of the region.
And with polysilicon—and the panels that need it—largely produced in China, countries don’t have much choice about which supply chains they want to support. “In the U.K., we have low-carbon targets, but we often don’t pay attention to the outsourcing of that low-carbon infrastructure at the end of its lifecycle or the imports we have to make at the beginning,” Jenkins said.
“No technology is inherently fair. Wind, coal, oil, gas, nuclear—there will always be a negative aspect to be managed carefully.”
There still aren’t enough financial incentives to improve recycling in the solar industry, either. Glass (the main material in solar panels), despite being one of the most recyclable materials on the planet, is rarely recycled due to poorly organized collection and processing services. Flat glass, the type used in panels, sees only an 11% global recycling rate—and just 10% of solar panels are recycled in the U.S.
That means solar waste streams, particularly in regions of the Global South experiencing a boom in smaller tech like solar lanterns and chargers, are rapidly becoming an area of concern. After all, runaway solar expansion isn’t doing the environment any favors when those pushing it ignore the trash heaps they leave behind. It might initially sound good that small units of solar tech are now being sold in bulk, but these units aren’t always easy to fix when they break. That lack of repairability can lead to vast amounts of waste.
“No technology is inherently fair,” Jenkins said. “Wind, coal, oil, gas, nuclear—there will always be a negative aspect to be managed carefully. For solar, which has been around for a shorter period of time, we’re still getting to grips with the full extent of what those challenges look like.”
In a world where 13% of people still don’t have access to electricity—a group that overlaps starkly with those facing the worst impacts of the climate crisis—fighting the twin fires of energy poverty and climate disaster has to remain a top priority.
“The vast majority of people see solar and its impacts on accessibility as being more beneficial than its risks,” Jenkins added. “We need governance that’s mindful of that—and people who are willing to hold an open conversation.”
An all-too-familiar pattern is starting to emerge here. The tech’s not the problem; the way it’s governed is. The key to making sure that solar energy, like its celestial source, shines on everyone equally is making sure that equity is baked into the process of processing it.
“We might look to install solar panels on farmland, rooftops, schools, or community centers as much for energy education as for generation,” Jenkins said. “But how do we make sure that energy is accessible to everyone equally?”
Williams pointed out in his 2019 paper that many solar plants, particularly in the Global South, not only siphon off local water reserves to protect panels from heat but tend to send the energy they produce to the Global North rather than to nearby communities in need. And solar panels in the U.S.—installations of which are predicted to quadruple over the next decade—are overwhelmingly installed in white-majority areas even after taking into account racial disparities in household income and home ownership.
In the U.S., states like Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana are seeing increasingly vocal opposition to rural solar farms on the grounds that they require the sacrifice of prime agricultural farmland. An alternative—to build solar farms in the desert instead—raises biodiversity concerns, such as the destruction of endangered flora and fauna. The upcoming Gemini array in the Mojave Desert, for instance, has been criticized for threatening the habitat of the endangered Mojave desert tortoise.
Perhaps as a result of my days as a denizen of Tumblr, where solarpunk ideology blossomed in the 2010s, these limitations take me straight back to the drawing board to design the kind of future that works for all of us. Built on a foundation of climate optimism, inclusivity, and democracy, solarpunk asks us to actively imagine a future where we save the planet in tandem with the human and non-human communities sharing our soils—with historically marginalized people at the center.
Firstly, that means getting creative with how we use our space—and, crucially, devoting unexpected bits of it to green generation. As land prices rise, floating solar farms have begun to adorn waterways from the Netherlands to the Amazon. In France, car parks with space for more than 80 vehicles will soon be legally required to be covered in solar panels. Across the world, abandoned golf courses and snaking cycle paths have found themselves sheathed in solar arrays.
But underlying those glimmering aesthetics needs to be a far firmer commitment to equity. “I think the entire way in which energy systems are run are often completely blind to a lot of the justice issues associated with them,” Jenkins said.
“If we gave people [solar tech] like we gave them a COVID vaccine, we would have a healthier world.”
Williams, in his 2019 paper on the relationship between solarpunk and the energy transition, agreed: “The simple switch to solar technologies, without regard for the specifics of their construction and the very real problems with their disposal, is insufficient.”
This points to another pillar of solarpunk: its drive to reorient our imagination away from the extractive logic that has characterized our fossil fuel-dominated economy and toward energy justice. “Advertising expenditure in the U.S. by fossil fuel companies is enormous,” Heffron pointed out. “We’re talking about billions spent on pro-fossil fuel ad campaigns. To me, that represents extraordinary power over and influence on our social institutions.”
Isn’t progress toward decarbonization still progress? Technically—but a world where solar cars litter motorways and Sin City runs off the sun is still a world where individual and corporate desires for wealth, status, and money trump community and cooperation. That’s unlikely to be a world in which any kind of energy equity is achieved.
“We should be looking at giving everyone their own solar panel, their own energy storage battery, their own small piece of [artificial intelligence] software to learn their electricity usage,” Heffron said. “If we gave people that like we gave them a COVID vaccine, we would have a healthier world.”
But things are rarely so simple. Across the U.S., for example, a combination of factors—including longstanding fears of socialism and pushback from energy companies that would lose out if people began to generate their own power—means that any scheme incentivizing the growth of solar energy still remains more fantasy than reality for many. And, as Jenkins pointed out, capitalist systems prefer pursuing profit over helping people.
Stepping outside the confines of our capitalist system and starting small, by building communal solar infrastructure democratically, could help ensure true climate justice in future energy systems. “How do we avoid energy profiteering?” Jenkins asked. “Perhaps that’s the next wave of solar.” It’s a wave solarpunks have seen coming—and one that will bring us closer to that green utopia we all deserve.
There are three elements in the growing body of solarpunk literature that have come to characterize the genre: light, abundance, and transparency. If we can weave these into the roots of solar power generation, we can brighten the world into a sunnier place.