A successful solar installation at a local elementary school in Los Altos, CA.

Sunflowers don’t belong in the shade. As a plant named after its tendency to convert solar radiation into energy, it’s only natural to assume that it should be planted in radiant sunlight.

A visualization of which states receive the most sunlight, and would therefore be better candidates for solar power, with darker shades representing more sunlight. Can be compared with the blue graph below. (Image Credit: Kahaan Gandhi)

Why don’t we apply the same logic to solar panels?

Our mechanical imitations of sunflowers, generating the very electricity that powers our lives, are being installed while completely ignoring this natural rule. I wish that the counties and states exposed to the most sunlight were being prioritized for solar panels. These regions, exposed to a continual stream of energy from the sun, could efficiently produce high levels of electricity, meaning that solar energy would be a major part of our renewable energy network. We would stop relying on fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources that power us at the expense of our Earth’s vibrant environment. But, I don’t need a science publication full of perplexing math to highlight the clear differences between my dream and reality. Turning on the news to hear reports of inconclusive climate change conferences and critical environmental studies losing funding is enough.

We’re In Trouble

A visualization of our current solar installations, with darker shades representing higher density. (Image Credit: Generation180)

While gardeners plant sunflowers where there’s abundant sunlight, policymakers install solar panels based on the wealth of regions, ignoring local elevation, weather patterns, latitude, and other factors that affect solar radiation. In this system dominated by restrictive state-level policies and a lack of available funding, solar energy goes to places that can afford it, not places that need it or could use it well, so we can’t realize our full potential.

Furthermore, solar panels work the best between 12-2 PM (since it’s sunniest at noon), while we use the most energy from 5-9 PM, a disparity commonly referred to as the Duck Curve (due to its bird-like shape). Essentially, our supply of solar energy isn’t synchronized with our demand for it, causing large corporations to consider alternative options. Cheap fossil fuels pollute our atmosphere and cause global warming, and nuclear power poses both military and environmental risks, but because of this ‘Duck Curve,’ they’re being considered over low-risk high-reward solar panels. 

Combining our misplacement of these solar panels with the temptation of using dangerous but convenient alternative energy, one can understand the difficulties behind making significant policy changes in the solar panel industry. What’s more, when confronting these large-scale environmental challenges, people often feel like their individual actions won’t have any tangible impact.

The duck curve is getting more pronounced every year.

Randeep Nandal, a South Asian student in the Bay Area, addressed this widespread perspective. “Unlike the observable effects of precise medical treatment, it can sometimes feel like the overall climate will be the same, whether I choose to fight the uphill environmental battle or simply wait for another person to come and solve everything,” he explains. But, Nandal goes on to recognize that after each person, community, and country has been waiting for others to take initiative and invest in our future, we’ve collectively arrived at a point where everyone has to begin working together. Otherwise, our globe will pass a point of no return.

While the journey to normalizing efficient solar installations stretches far into the future, there are concrete steps that we can all take to accelerate our progress.

Firstly, you can search for your local schools here to identify whether they’d benefit from an installation of solar panels. If they’re a good candidate, you should discuss Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) with the school’s administration, which allow the school to receive the benefits and passive income of solar panels while avoiding the financial hurdle of an up-front cost. A top priority for my elementary and middle schools, as well as other campuses throughout the Bay Area, was to fund the initial installation without disregarding other equally important parts of the school. Financing solar panels at schools should never come at the expense of teachers’ wages, school supplies, or any other educational resources. In fact, they should do the opposite, investing the earnings their panels accumulated back into the school itself, like this Arkansan school that used its savings to provide up to a $15,000 raise to its teachers.

Furthermore, we should all try to run appliances near the middle of the day (when the sun is up) and avoid using them during the window of 5-9 PM (when energy is more expensive). By doing so, we can ‘flatten the Duck Curve,’ meaning that the supply and demand for solar energy would become synced, a clear signal to lawmakers and energy providers to support solar panels and push for their widespread installation. Navya Bhatia, an Indian college student who’s incorporated this shift into her college dormitory’s schedule, commented on how “adjusting to the initial change took a few days, but after that, my roommates and I quickly fell into a consistent and comfortable routine.” For her, the brief period of transition and unfamiliar change was justified by the long-term satisfaction of helping preserve nature’s vigor. While it may feel like these state-wide and nation-wide graphs are immovable by a single person’s actions, they’re nothing more than the sum of the individual decisions of many people. Even a simple change in daily routines, when widely adopted, can have overwhelmingly beneficial effects, establishing the foundations for a coordinated and united environmental effort. 

Kahaan Gandhi is a senior at Menlo High School and the founder of Schools For Solar. As a lifelong vegetarian who grew up in the outdoors, exploring nature, he has always wanted to protect animals and the environment they call home. He is passionate about solving climate change and believes that we need to act with more ambition and speed.