DOE-backed survey finds Americans ‘in the dark’ about solar

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, August 12, 2016

Americans are “mostly in the dark” about solar power’s costs and options, according to a survey funded by the Department of Energy.

The poll of more than 2,000 utility customers found that almost 60 percent of consumers think a typical rooftop solar system covering monthly power usage costs less than $10,000, when some U.S. systems are triple that amount.

Similarly, few U.S. customers are aware of community solar, which allows multiple individuals to buy into a shared solar installation. The concept is considered an option for consumers who can’t afford a stand-alone system or who live in apartments or other shared building spaces. About 20 percent of poll respondents said they were familiar with the idea, although almost half said they were interested after being provided with more details.

The analysis, released from the Smart Electric Power Alliance and the Shelton Group, concludes that community solar projects could experience dramatic growth under the right circumstances. Almost 60 percent of respondents said they were interested in solar power generally, despite the lack of understanding of community solar specifically.

“Utilities and solar providers alike know that community solar can fill a significant need in the marketplace, but they’re anxious about what might happen. If we build it, will they come? The answer is yes. But only if you put a significant marketing push in place,” the report says.

The groups found that current community solar programs often are not matching consumer demands, in that they have long leasing terms, are expensive, don’t include on-bill financing and are not sited based on proximity to a community.

In cases where customers lease a set number of panels in a community solar project, an increase in upfront costs of $100 caused a 57 percent plunge in consumer interest, according to the research.

“Consumer interest in community solar dwindles at a price point far lower than what’s currently being offered in the marketplace,” the report says.

Most respondents interested in community solar also want it to be run through a utility or utility partnership with a solar company. And they would consider paying more for a system that is visible. Interest in financing options can differ greatly according to age and marriage status, too.

The survey further found that community solar users want the option of tracking the power from their share of a project continuously, perhaps through a cellphone app.

“Program designers should consider this feature a must-have,” SEPA said.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia currently have laws that support community solar projects, according to SEPA.

The association said it would use the survey results to help utilities explore community solar options. As one example, the group said it is helping an Ohio village of more than 2,800 residents gauge consumer interest in community solar.

The survey was conducted in December and had a margin of error of 2.2 points.