By Emily Pontecorvo
Why isn’t rooftop solar more highly touted as a climate change solution? I know it’s small scale, but it’s something that an individual person can actually DO. I love my solar panels, and I would like to see them on every flat surface that gets sunlight — schools, stores, churches, storage units, etc. Is it politics, economics, supply issues? It just seems so obvious to me!
— Solar Usage Needs Nurturing, Y’heard?
It might feel like solar panels have been around long enough that they should be plastering the built environment. After all, Jimmy Carter first put panels on the White House roof more than 40 years ago. But your vision of solar utopia may be a little ahead of the times. “Solar has only really been this economic for about five years,” Jenny Chase, the head of solar analysis at the energy research firm BloombergNEF, told me. Major home renovations don’t happen overnight.
Chase said that since 2004, when rooftop solar first started to take off in Germany, the cost of a solar module on the world market has declined from $4 per watt down to just $0.24 today. And considering how recently the cost came down, rooftop solar is bigger than you might think. Installations around the world have increased by an average of 25 percent per year. The U.S. has about 2.8 million installations, with more than a million in California, where rooftop solar supplies about 10 percent of the state’s electricity. And these numbers are growing fast. Even though the clean energy industry ground to a halt at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw a record high in new rooftop solar capacity.
But despite amazing cost declines over the past decade, it’s still a major investment. Though total costs depend on the size of your home and which subsidies and loan programs are available in your area, the sticker price of an average-sized home installation in the U.S. is about $20,000, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association.
The truth is, SUNNY, rooftop solar is growing fast, but it’s not growing at the same pace everywhere, and it’s not as accessible to everyone as it may have been to you.
Kimberly Wolske, assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, researches what motivates people to adopt rooftop solar. And while early customers such as yourself may have gotten on board for environmental reasons or because they were excited about the technology, Wolske has found that now social influence is also a significant factor. When people either see solar roofs in their community, or talk to friends and neighbors that have them, they might become more interested, but more than that, it can assuage any concerns they have about the cost or the risk involved.
“It really is about reducing the perceived risk of making this investment on what is probably your single biggest investment — your home,” said Wolske.