Profiles of Solar Adopters by Income Group

More and more households in the United States are choosing to install solar panels on their roofs thanks to favorable incentives and financing models. Most of these households are wealthy, with the middle class now just starting to catch up. Yet, almost half of the country’s rooftop solar potential lies on low-income homes. To address this inequity, a growing number of policies aim to help low-income households install solar—at little or no cost. Will these consumers choose to sign up?

Kim Wolske, a research associate and assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, compared low-income and higher-income adopters to help answer that question. In partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Wolske surveyed more than 500 low-income households in California who received solar photovoltaic systems at no cost through the nonprofit GRID Alternatives. She then compared their responses to those of high-income rooftop solar adopters from a for-profit installer in the same state.

When asked what motivated them to install solar, both groups rated saving money on their electricity bills as the primary reason. That factor was followed by the desire to use and demonstrate the value of solar as a renewable energy technology. The latter consideration was backed up by a natural intrigue for novel technologies conveyed by both groups, as well as a sense of personal obligation to help confront climate change and address energy issues broadly. More consumers in the low-income group felt this obligation than in the high-income group. One reason may be that the low-income group was made up of more Latino consumers, who have been shown to be more environmentally motivated and concerned about climate change than non-Latinos. The two groups also reported similar concerns: continued affordability, equipment quality and reliability over time, and having to perform regular maintenance on their solar panel systems. Both groups of households were more concerned about these long-term factors than they were about the solar panels detracting from their homes’ appearance or making their homes harder to sell.

Taken together, the study suggests that even when rooftop solar is highly-subsidized, it may be most attractive to people who fit the profile of “early adopters”—individuals who are pro-environmentally oriented, drawn to novel technology, and less risk averse. That means, “just like in the for-profit sector, program administrators may first need the buy-in of consumers who are already interested in the technology and motivated to use it,” Wolske explains.

Areas of Focus: Energy Markets
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Energy Markets
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Renewable Energy
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Renewable Energy
Lower technology costs and supportive public policies are driving an increase in renewable energy in markets around the world. EPIC research is assessing the costs, benefits, and efficiency of policies...