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? A new study comparing low-income and higher-income adopters finds the two groups are more alike than one might expect.

“Much of what we know about solar adoption comes from studies of the earliest adopters, who tend to be wealthier and more highly educated,” says Kim Wolske, the author of the study and a research associate and assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. “As policymakers create new programs aimed at bringing solar to the roofs of low-income households, an important question persists: Will the same marketing strategies and policy approaches work? This study provides a good starting point to answer that fundamental 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.

“Our expectation was that the two groups would be quite different,” Wolske says. “The prospect of receiving a free solar system should, in theory, attract a wider range of low-income consumers—with different motivations and concerns—than what we see in the for-profit market with higher income households. But, that’s not what we found. They have very similar profiles.”

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.” That is, individuals who are pro-environmentally oriented, drawn to novel technology, and less risk averse.

“Although more research is needed—especially given that we surveyed only adopters and not non-adopters—this study draws into question the assumption that ‘free’ energy services such as weatherization assistance programs or subsidized solar are inherently appealing,” Wolske says. “Just like 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.”

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Renewable Energy
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