Who’s Really Going Solar?

Solar for Middle Class

In recent months, some solar critics and hand-wringing pundits have levied a new charge — the cost-saving benefits of rooftop solar, they say, are only enjoyed by society’s most affluent members (or the 1%, as some would say).

Of course, this is a claim which is easily rebuked. We’re designing and building these systems every single day, and seeing firsthand the market transformation that now enables solar to be an extremely viable financial proposition for homeowners and businesses across the economic spectrum.

First, we’ve seen dramatic reductions in the cost of solar modules and other equipment. Across the board, solar module prices in Q1 2012 were up to 40% lower than in Q1 2011, resulting in installed system price reductions of 20% or more. These same installed costs have fallen by 40% or more in most states since 2008. Naturally, this makes solar a better investment for a much broader band of the population.

Second, the availability of third-party financing not only makes solar more affordable, but also much more accessible. In most cases, solar customers don’t need to make a significant initial investment to start realizing cost savings via solar. This, in turn, has expanded solar’s customer base beyond those with a nest egg or other cash reserves. In most key solar markets, financed systems now comprise well over 50% of total installations, a testament to the power of this fundamental market change.

In California, the PV Solar Report found that nearly two-thirds of residential installations in 2009, 2010, and 2011 were in areas with median annual household incomes of $40,000-85,000, and not in the wealthiest areas of the state. Moreover, significant growth has been experienced – and is forecasted – in the areas with predominantly low-to-median annual household incomes. At REC Solar, we see this every day, as we install systems in non-assuming communities such as Bakersfield, Trenton, Fresno, Denver, and Tucson. Though those with the highest electricity bills will benefit most from offsetting their consumption with clean solar energy, these benefits extend well beyond the enclaves of the so-called 1%.

All of which makes going a solar in 2012 a much more democratic proposition, and this progress will no doubt continue.

UPDATE (7/2): The California Public Utilities Commission today released a report which noted that residential and commercial solar projects in middle-income markets (areas with median incomes between $50,000 and $100,000) have increased by 445 percent since 2007, and comprised the majority of applications received in 2011.

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