Solar Panels on the White House during the Carter administration

From Earth Day 1970 to 2022: A story of progress

The rise of solar power since the first Earth Day is just one example of how far we’ve come

Flash back to the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. The dangers of air and water pollution were front and center in the nascent American environmental movement.  At the time, with vehicle and industrial emissions running rampant, many American cities were choked with smog

Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published eight years prior, had put a spotlight on the environmental and human harms caused by largely unregulated pesticides like DDT. By 1969, a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California had dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the Pacific, polluting miles of ocean and killing thousands of birds. That same year, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River – formally one of America’s most polluted rivers – famously caught fire when sparks from a passing train ignited oily debris floating on the river’s surface. 

By 1970, as the country’s serious environmental problems continued to make headlines, a new environmental consciousness had risen in America, and people started demanding changes to protect our water, air and natural treasures.

Fast forward 52 years. This week, people around the world will celebrate Earth Day 2022. On this anniversary, it’s worth taking a step back and considering how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. While we continue to focus on our ongoing environmental problems, it’s important to acknowledge where we’ve had success: the story of solar power in cities across America offers a shining example of that progress and its cumulative impact.

The rise of solar power: An American success story

In 1970, solar technology was in its infancy. The high cost of solar cells created an obstacle for photovoltaic (PV) technologies like solar panels to reach the public in any kind of meaningful way. In fact, it wasn’t until 1973 that the University of Delaware boasted one of the very first solar-powered buildings in the U.S.

Today, in contrast, solar has entered the mainstream. Market places like EnergySage allow homeowners to shop for the best bid to install solar. The solar industry has national and state trade associations. The once nascent industry has come into its own, and left a whole lot of solar panels in its wake.

According to our latest report, the United States now has enough solar energy installed to power more than 23 million homes – more than 16% of all homes in America. Alongside solar-friendly policies at every level of government, solar technology improvements and rapidly declining costs have helped to fuel this success story. 

Environment America Research & Policy Center’s new report, Shining Cities 2022: The Top U.S. Cities for Solar Energy, highlights the central role that cities have played in America’s solar energy revolution. The amount of solar power installed in just nine U.S. cities exceeds the amount installed in the entire United States 10 years ago. Just looking at the number of cities designated as “Solar Stars” – any with over 50 watts of solar capacity per person – since the first edition of Shining Cities in 2014 tells the story:

Figure ES-1. The number of “Solar Stars” (cities with >50W of solar per capita) in each edition of Shining Cities

That’s truly remarkable progress. And all that solar has delivered huge benefits, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet, limit air pollution and improve public health. 

Other key environmental success stories
  • Established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has gone on to ban some of the most damaging toxic substances like DDT (and saved the Bald Eagle from the brink of extinction) and passed monumental laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

  • Made remarkable progress in cleaning up our water. Advocates, including here at Environment America and The Public Interest Network, have led efforts to crack down on pollution so that our rivers no longer catch on fire, shield rivers from development and protect small streams and wetlands as well as major bodies of water. 

  • Dramatically reduced air pollution, meaning cleaner, healthier air to breathe and clearer skies. Thanks in large part to the Clean Air Act and other policies that have brought down air pollution in the U.S. since 1970,  Americans now experience much lower levels of particulate matter, ozone and other unhealthy pollutants in the air we breathe. 

Declining national air pollutant concentration averages
Declining national air pollutant concentration averages
  • Permanently protected millions of acres of wild places. From the vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska to the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of Cape Cod, conservationists have successfully ensured that some of our most pristine wildernesses and critical habitats will be protected for generations to come. 

  • Helped renewable energy – including solar as well as wind and geothermal – take off nationwide. More than 12% of electricity in the U.S. comes from the wind, the sun and the earth, compared to just 0.5% in 2001 – and next to nothing back in 1970! 

U.S. renewable energy (wind, solar and geothermal) production and cumulative combined state goals for 2020
U.S. renewable energy (wind, solar and geothermal) production and cumulative combined state goals for 2020

There is, of course, plenty of work left to do in order to ensure a clean, healthy future and livable climate. We must, for example, continue to replace dirty energy with clean and renewable alternatives at an even more rapid clip. While more than a dozen states are taking  steps to address the vast amount of trash this country produces, we’ve got immense room for improvement. And the list goes on.

But, instead of sinking into feelings of doom and despair, we should feel buoyed by the remarkable track record of the environmental movement to date. We have every reason to be hopeful for future Earth Days with even cleaner skies, protected ecosystems and healthier communities. While there’s always more work to do, this Earth Day we should also remember to stay grateful for how far we’ve already come. 

Cover photo: Solar panels on the White House during the Carter administration. Credit: “The White House Gets Solar Panels,” Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed via https://www.whitehousehistory.org/photos/the-white-house-gets-solar-panels-photo-1.