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Yoni Binstock's picture
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Main Street, Not Wall Street, is Growing Solar Energy

Solar Industry Public Support

Since 2000, more than 1,460 MW of residential solar installations have been installed across the country and in 2012 alone, rooftop solar installations nearly doubled the installed capacity added in 2010. These growth numbers are great, but who’s behind it? Your first thought might be the wealthy Wall Street bankers or celebrities in Hollywood, but you’d be mistaken.

In a report from the Center for American Progress, data was analyzed from the three states with the most solar systems: Arizona, California, and New Jersey.  It was found that installations are overwhelmingly occurring in middle-class neighborhoods that have median incomes ranging from $40,000 to $90,000. According to the report, “the areas that experienced the most growth from 2011 to 2012 had median incomes ranging from $40,000 to $50,000 in both Arizona and California and $30,000 to $40,000 in New Jersey.”

These findings are in direct contrast with the story told by the utility companies, who frame rooftop solar as a technology that is only being adopted by the wealthy and that lower-income customers are subsidizing wealthy customers through policies such as net metering. They argue that homeowners with solar PV systems are not paying their fair share for the maintenance cost of the grid and are worried as customers go solar that their business models are going to be undermined. The Center for American Progress responded with,

The oft-repeated utility-industry narrative is not only being used as a vehicle for solar policy scrutiny – it also serves as a distraction from the fact that solar technology provides the same benefits to the grid regardless of the homeowner’s income level. These benefits include avoided fuel costs, reduced transmission and distribution costs, emissions-free energy production, and generation capacity that can offset use during peak energy-consumption times during the day in certain regions. Some utilities have quantified those benefits and found that the value that solar technology brings to the grid in their service territory is actually higher than the retail electricity rate.

But why is the middle class going solar? A lot of it can probably be explained by the solar leasing model which allows homeowners to amortize the cost of a system over time rather than pay for it all upfront. Where solar leasing is available, nearly 75% of solar customers go through a solar leasing/power purchase agreement (PPA) option. In addition, according to a report from SEPA (Solar Electric Power Association), solar homeowners save an average $600 a year on their electricity cost. Over the course of a 20-25 year solar lease, that comes to around an impressive $12,000-$15,000 saved.  

It makes sense; the working and middle classes are more sensitive to electricity bill increases. Saving hundreds of dollars a year means more to the middle class than it does to the rich. That’s why the middle and working classes are switching to solar power and growing the solar revolution.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 18, 2013

Yoni, it’s not Main St. or Wall St. which is growing solar, but K Street. Though by this time the industry must be getting sore from slapping itself on the back, its self-congratulatory growth has absolutely nothing to do with the virtues of solar energy, which are limited, and everything to do with the fierce feed-in tariffs and subsidies which public policy has mandated.

Japan’s citizenry apparently finds it worthwhile to cough up $.38/kWh – or roughly three times the rate I pay for retail electricity – to support solar and kill nuclear in the wake of Fukushima. That people in proximity to the accident might want to temporarily pay more for comfort-food is excusable. For others, a quarter or halfway around the globe, to indulge their fears by succumbing to the lure of solar snake-oil is downright pathetic. Come on. Nearly three years hence, it’s time to take a breath, gather out wits, identify our true enemy, and mount the offensive which all of sound science and reasonable thinking dictates.

And for this industry, which promptly collapses when support is kicked out from under it, to imply it could float freely in midair were it not for this “gravity” notion being imposed on it by backward-thinking physicists, a unique brand of hubris is required.

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