New Report: Greatest Growth in Consumer Adoption of Solar Energy Among Middle Class

DECEMBER 1, 2015, SACRAMENTOA new report on residential rooftop solar installations indicates the growth in California’s rooftop solar market is trending toward greater adoption by middle class households. The trend, seen over the course of eight years, aligns with a steady decline in the cost of solar power and in the increase of financing options.

The new study by Kevala Analytics analyzed California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) solar interconnection data for 386,000 net metered solar systems installed from 2008-2015. The main takeaway conclusion from the study is that as solar deployment has expanded statewide, an increasing percentage of installations within that time frame are benefiting low- and middle-income median zip codes, with a decreasing fraction of installations in upper-income zip codes.

“Middle class consumers are seeking to generate their own power as part of a tangible solution to rising electricity costs,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA). “Our goal is to make solar power as commonplace and accessible as cell phones. We aren’t there yet but the trend is heading in the right direction so long as policy makers maintain current pro-consumer policies such as net metering and the federal tax credits.”

During these same eight years, there has been a steep decline in the adoption of solar among upper-income households contrasted with a recent increase in the market among the lowest-bracket incomes. In 2015, the statewide number of households in the highest income brackets matched the number in the lowest income brackets.

“This latest report only confirms what we’ve known for a long time: that solar is increasingly accessible to more Californians and the deployment of more rooftop solar benefits everyone” said Michelle Kinman, Clean Energy Advocate for Environment California, a long-time supporter of rooftop solar programs and sponsor of the original incentive program that began in 2006.

Kevala also analyzed city and county installation data. In Fresno County, long known as a leader in solar deployment per capita, zip codes with median incomes of $40,000 – $55,000 consistently represent roughly half of solar deployment while the only group to mark a decline in relative penetration since 2009 is the highest median income group ($70,000-100,000). Furthermore, Frenso County saw a recent incline in deployment of solar in the lowest income group (<$40,000) which now surpasses the two highest income bracekts in the county. Similarly, in Los Angeles County, the CPUC’s data indicates a steep decline in upper income zip code (above $70,000) adoption and considerable growth in the moderate zip codes (between $40,000- $70,000) of the program life.

“We have a long way to go to achieve economic equity when it comes to access to clean energy technologies but the trend is headed in the right direction,” said Stephanie Chen, Energy and Telecommunications Policy Director for Greenlining Institute. “Policy makers should ensure that access to solar continues to grow, particularly in the communities where the monthly bill savings can really make a difference.”

“Industry and low income advocates agree that more should be done to continue to lower the cost of solar energy and to incentivize more low-income consumers to participate in the state’s clean energy transformation,” said Del Chiaro, who worked with the California Environmental Justice Alliance on AB 693 (Eggman), which will greatly expand solar incentives for affordable housing projects throughout the state

The California Solar Energy Industries Association pointed out that solar energy brings other benefits to California in the form of cleaner air and jobs. Statewide, the industry employs more than 55,000 workers, a number that exceeds the combined employment of the state’s five largest utilities.

‘When our company began mapping solar installation data to incomes in 2011, we learned quickly that public perception does not match the reality that middle income zip codes lead the way in solar adoption,” said Walker Wright, Director of Public Policy for Sunrun. “Education on middle-income adoption of solar must continue today and Kevala’s findings are instructive for all stakeholders. We appreciate the California Public Utilities Commission making the data available for this necessary ongoing analysis.” Wright pointed out that this latest research validates those findings and also those of other noteworthy reports, including that of Environment California, PV Solar Report, and Center for American Progress point to similar conclusions

The report indicates that demand for rooftop solar is strongest in demographics where saving between 10% and 20% savings in electricity costs is meaningful enough to drive switching to solar in the first place. The report was conducted as the CPUC deliberates whether to adopt changes to net metering, the primary policy driving consumer adoption of solar energy, proposed by utility companies that would make solar two to three times more expensive in the coming year.