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.