Study questions value of solar panel giveaways

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, January 20, 2020

Large subsidies often aren’t enough to convince low- to moderate-income people to install rooftop solar panels, according to a new study, raising questions about the limits of the technology’s usefulness for decarbonizing electricity.

The study out of the University of Chicago, published this week in Energy Research & Social Science, sought to evaluate whether low-income adopters of rooftop solar were attracted to the technology for different reasons than high-income people, who make up the bulk of residential solar customers now.

It surveyed low-income Californians who owned their home and had participated in a program guided by nonprofit Grid Alternatives, which made solar panels available for free to households with less than 80% of their area’s median income. The surveys were then compared to data from high-income Californians.

Despite the free giveaway, low-income adopters of solar weren’t any more attracted to the notion of saving money on power bills, it found. And they were even more interested in the environmental benefits and the novelty of renewable technology than higher-income customers.

“They have stronger pro-environmental norms, and they feel a personal obligation to address energy and climate issues,” said Kim Wolske, an environmental psychologist at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

That could be because many of the low- and moderate-income people surveyed were Latino, a group that tends to have a stronger affinity for climate policies, she noted. And although California is the nation’s biggest solar market, it’s not clear to what extent the study’s results could be generalized to other states.

But the findings may raise questions about how policymakers should go about democratizing solar for an income segment that amounts to 43% of U.S. households.

Subsidies for rooftop solar flow overwhelmingly to the wealthy, and in some cases, utilities can try to make up lost revenues by charging their lower-income customers more, according to studies.

Some groups have tried to resolve that equity problem by focusing on community solar or other utility-led programs. Still, rooftop solar is often valued by energy analysts because of its potential for balancing the grid and because it can present fewer siting conflicts than large-scale solar farms.

Low- and moderate-income homes could represent an important market for rooftop systems, making up about 42% of the total potential at residences.

Across income levels, most people said saving money was the top reason for their interest in solar, said Wolske. Those who actually installed rooftop solar distinguished themselves as being less risk-averse and more willing to try out new technologies.

Solar programs aimed at those with low incomes might pique interest more effectively by emphasizing the environmental benefits, too, she reasoned.

“I would say the study draws into question whether offering something for free is enough of an incentive,” said Wolske.