Why solar panels are becoming a middle-class commodity

Jorge Madrid

This was adaptated from a blog post first published on EDF’s Energy Exchange blog.

The price of solar panels has fallen by 80 percent since 2008, contributing to a surge in solar home systems in the United States.

Incentives such as net metering and solar ”leasing” programs have also broadened the market. Today, middle-income and working-class homes are driving investments in roof-top solar systems in key states, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down.

After analyzing installations in Arizona, California, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York, the Center for American Progress found that in all states except Maryland, roof-top solar panels overwhelmingly landed in neighborhoods with a median household income of $40,000 to $90,000.

The benefits of these panels have multiplied.

New jobs for a diverse group of working Americans

We now boast an estimated 20 gigawatts of solar energy nationwide, enough to power more than four million homes, and the United States added more solar capacity in the past two years than in the previous 30 years combined.

In fact, as President Obama highlighted in his State of the Union address last month, “every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008.”

This is not all about electricity. The growth of the solar industry is also creating good jobs, and plenty of them.

The  industry added jobs nearly 20 times faster than the national average in 2014, and solar employment has grown 86 percent in the past five years. Solar installers make an average of $20 to $24 per hour, and solar salespeople can make up to $60 per hour.

This emerging industry is inclusive. As I have written before, solar and other clean energy jobs are generally more accessible to people of color and folks without advanced degrees.

A cleaner environment for people who need it most

Not to be overlooked are the environmental benefits of solar: The deployment of this clean energy resource helped avoid an estimated 20 million metric tons of harmful carbon dioxide emissions in 2014, the equivalent of taking 4 million cars off U.S. highways.

The fact that solar averts dirty, fossil fuel pollution has a critical equity aspect as approximately 68 percent of African-Americans and a similar percentage of Latinos live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.

A recent study found that nearly 40 percent of communities of color breathe polluted air.

Solar can reach many more homes

While all of this news is encouraging, there is still much more unrealized potential for local solar access and affordability for low-income people, renters and communities of color – constituencies that usually overlap. 

Seizing this opportunity is a priority for many lawmakers and advocates – including Environmental Defense Fund – who are working to find solutions.

A community solar pilot project in Los Angeles, for example, will empower residents to own a share of a local solar garden without installing panels on their own roofs. This has the potential to reach 51 percent of the population in the city who rent, and large swaths of residents who can’t afford their own solar system.

These and other policies can create access and affordability for people who otherwise could not join the clean energy revolution – and we need to get policies right on net metering and other incentives that help every American benefit.

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