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Solar power is already growing rapidly in New York

The 450 solar panels that were recently installed

The 450 solar panels that were recently installed on top of the Brentwood Public Library. Photo Credit: Brentwood Public Library

Fifteen years ago, flat-screen TVs were a rare luxury item, and cellphones were just beginning to gain popularity. Video chats happened mostly in "Star Trek" reruns, and few homes had broadband Internet service.

Just as these technological advances have become common, solar energy, a rather exotic power source at the start of the millennium, is growing faster than many might think. In 2013, every four minutes another home or business across America went solar, or had a solar system installed, according to federal figures.

In New York State, solar energy grew 63 percent a year over the last three years, Interstate Renewable Energy Council data show. "Star Power: the Growing Role of Solar Energy in New York," a recent report by the Environment New York Research and Policy Center, says that if solar-panel installations continue to increase at 47 percent annually between 2013 and 2025, New York will have enough solar energy to generate 20 percent of its electricity.

This is a critical finding at a time when state regulators are trying to ramp up the use of renewable energy throughout New York.

In fact, all policy leaders need to do is keep their foot on the accelerator to reach a significant amount of solar energy. Increasing solar energy power production with strong policies, like the state's Community Solar NY initiative, which will make accessing solar energy easier for communities across the state, is more urgent than ever.

That's because scientists have never been clearer that global warming is real, and will only worsen without meaningful action. In New York, we're already feeling consequences -- from superstorm Sandy to the recent monster storm in Buffalo that dumped six feet of snow.

Achieving 20 percent solar energy would cut as much carbon pollution as 3 million cars emit in a year, and put New York more than halfway to the benchmark set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan would require power plants to cut carbon pollution by 44 percent.

Solar is good for the environment and our economy. Solar is the fastest-growing industry, adding 143,000 jobs nationwide in 2013. According to the Solar Foundation, a national group that tracks trends, the industry employed more than 5,000 people in New York last year.

Of course, 20 percent solar is just a sliver of the possible. The state is home to more than 1.9 million residential and commercial rooftops that could host solar panels, and it has enough technical potential to meet the state's energy needs 11 times over.

Twenty percent solar is a small fraction of our potential, but it would make a big difference in the quality of our lives and our children's future. It also would put us on the path to the 100 percent clean energy future we need for the health of our planet.

In 2025 we'll be writing about how odd it was that 10 years ago, some homes still had phones that were connected to walls, and only a minuscule amount of energy came from the sun.

Heather Leibowitz is the director of the Environment New York Research and Policy Center, a statewide advocacy organization. Kevin Parker is a Democratic state senator from Brooklyn and a member of the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

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