Why solar panels are becoming a middle-class commodity


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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Jorge Madrid

Jorge Madrid

Jorge is the Campaign Manager for EDF's California Climate and Energy team. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of Voces Verdes.

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Now if only they weren't so damn ugly and didn't mess up your roof. Can you imagine the cost of getting a new roof if you have a bunch of solar panels sitting on top of it, or even fixing the leaks the panels will cause. And then there are ordinances and HOA's that don't allow solar panels. Seriously if you could put them up on poles in you back yard so they didn't mess mess up the roof they would be more viable.

Community solar has huge potential for folks that can't, or don't want to, use their own roofs to go solar. But the reality is that roof-mounted installations don't "mess up" your roof. Special flashings that slide under traditional shingles are guaranteed water-tight. I work for an installer and in over 7 years of PV installations we haven't had one leak. They're also finding that roofs last longer with panels on them since the roof is shielded from weather and UV rays. However, when the roof, inevitably, eventually does need to be replaced, it's not a huge deal to have the panels removed and then put back on once a new roof is put on a home (the cost depends on how many panels you have). Another advantage - with solar panels on your roof, your A/C usage goes down in warm weather since the panels, which generally sit about 2 - 3 inches above the roof on racks, shade the roof and keep the attic cooler in summer. So not only do you generate your own electricity to run your A/C, but you use less of it too. Personally, I don't mind the way they look, but, if you don't, there are also solar shingles that integrate right into the roof's surface and are more aesthetically pleasing to those who object to the look of traditional panels (and might make HOA's happier too). The solar shingles are more expensive than traditional panels though. Ground-mounted systems on "poles" in back yards are also great options and we do many of those for folks with the space. There are lots of options to go solar and they're getting better, less expensive, and more efficient all the time.

Thank you for an informed, intelligent response

Using solar energy for our daily needs (from heating water to generating electricity) is one of the best methods to save the the other energy resources because solar energy is infinite.

Also, I totally agree with the lines "This is not all about electricity. The growth of the solar industry is also creating good jobs, and plenty of them." Because solar energy also has provided people with employment.

You summed up all of the great things about solar power fairly well, Jorge. One of the greatest things about the solar power industry in recent years is that homeowners no longer need to rely on overpriced solar leases. There's plenty of financing that homeowners can use to buy solar panel systems and save thousands over taking on a lease.

Thanks for your comment, cken. Fortunately, there’s a solution called “community solar” that solves the problem of putting solar panels on your roof (or on poles in your backyard). Community solar allows people to invest in a local solar array in or near their neighborhood.

You sign up as a “subscriber” of this local solar energy, then get a credit on your electricity bill for the energy produced from the community solar. This process called virtual net metering. To learn more about community solar, net metering, and what EDF is doing to advance policies like this, please check out our latest blog post on the subject.

This is great. I suggest that all people should get solar panels for their home. Not just because it could save you power, but also because it can save your environment.