Cheaper Solar Power Means Lower-Income Families Could Benefit
By Galen Barbose, Eric O'Shaughnessy and Ryan Wiser
Until recently, rooftop solar panels were a clean energy technology that only wealthy Americans could afford. But prices have dropped, thanks mostly to falling costs for hardware, as well as price declines for installation and other "soft" costs.
Today hundreds of thousands of middle-class households across the U.S. are turning to solar power. But households with incomes below the median for their areas remain less likely to go solar. These low- and moderate-income households face several roadblocks to solar adoption, including cash constraints, low rates of home ownership and language barriers.
Our team of researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory examined how various policies and business models could affect the likelihood of people at all income levels adopting solar. In a recently published study, we analyzed five common solar policies and business models to see whether they attracted lower-income households.
We found that three scenarios did: offering financial incentives to low- and moderate-income households; leasing solar panels to homeowners; and lending money to buy panels, with the loan repaid on property tax bills. All of these approaches resulted in people at a wider range of income levels trying solar energy.
Solar Power for Everyone
For over a decade our team at the Berkeley lab's Electricity Markets and Policy group has kept tabs on trends in the rooftop solar market through our annual report, "Tracking the Sun." It documents how prices have fallen, and the number of installations has risen in U.S. solar markets.
Over the past decade rooftop solar power has grown significantly in the U.S., spreading beyond initial hot spots in California and Hawaii to states such as North Carolina, Florida and New Jersey. The industry projects that rapid growth will continue for the foreseeable future.
More recently our researchers have combined this tracking report with data on household-level demographics and income of solar adopters, covering more than 70% of the U.S. residential solar market. Among the research products we've created is an online interactive tool that shows the demographic characteristics of solar adoption down to the county level.
Thanks to these price and growth trends, an increasing number of state and local governments, utilities and businesses want to help lower-income customers go solar. They believe solar will cut energy bills, reduce money spent on bill payment programs, avoid pollution and create green jobs.
So far, 20 states are offering 38 programs to help lower-income customers go solar. California, the largest, has budgeted over US$1 billion for such programs. A number of utilities and solar developers, like Posigen and GRID Alternatives, are also developing business models that work for all customers. These initiatives leverage state and federal incentives to deliver free or very low-cost solar to eligible households.
Donnel Baird's company makes energy-saving updates to buildings almost exclusively in low-income areas. Cutting the… https://t.co/5uWGSVnu9m— NPR (@NPR)1603088973.0
Reducing Upfront Costs
In our study we evaluated five policies and business models to see which ones helped low- and moderate-income households go solar:
- Financial incentives targeted at low- and moderate-income households, usually rebates or other incentives to reduce upfront costs.
- Leasing rooftop solar systems, which reduces upfront costs.
- Property Assessed Clean Energy financing, or PACE, which allows customers to finance energy improvements through their property tax payments. Currently, residential PACE is available only in California, Florida and Missouri.
- Financial incentives such as rebates offered to customers of any income level.
- "Solarize" campaigns, in which customers band together in a group purchase to get a good price.
The study includes data on more than 1 million residential rooftop photovoltaic systems installed on single-family homes in 18 states from 2010 to 2018. We compared modeled household-level income estimates for solar adopters with area median household incomes from U.S. Census data.
We found that three of the interventions – targeted incentives, leasing and PACE – effectively increased adoption equity. These approaches are boosting sales to low-income customers in existing markets and helping solar companies move into new markets, such as low-income areas where solar sales have been weak or absent.
Policies that don't address the needs and constraints of low-income households, like the federal income tax credit, have not had much effect on equity. And solarize campaigns are rarely pitched to low-income buyers.
An Untapped Customer Base
When solar expands into new markets and neighborhoods, it can have a spillover impact. If a system is installed in a neighborhood that had no solar before, neighbors who see it will be more likely to adopt it themselves. Moving into new markets may have greater potential effects on low-income adoption rates than reaching lower-income households in existing markets.
Expanding sales to low- and moderate-income households can also tap a larger base of potential customers. The U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) found in a study that 42% of rooftops where solar power could work are on low- and moderate-income housing.
A 2018 study estimates that installing rooftop solar systems on low- and moderate-income housing could provide up to 42% of all rooftop technical potential in the residential sector and improve energy affordability in low-income communities. NREL
As the solar market grows, decisions to install solar systems are increasingly driven by the prospect of saving money, rather than strictly by green values or buyers' interest in new technologies. A survey led by NREL found that roughly half of people who decided to install solar in California, New Jersey, New York and Arizona in 2014 to 2016 identified cost savings as a primary factor in their decision to adopt solar.
For low- and moderate-income households, the financial benefits of solar power can make a big difference. Many lower-income households carry a large energy burden, meaning that energy and utility costs consume a large share of their income. Across the U.S., low-income households spend about three times more of their income on energy costs than other households. Solar power can reduce those energy burdens by providing on-site power at a lower cost than grid electricity.
Making homes more energy efficient is an established strategy for cutting energy bills, but there's growing interest in having solar play a role. Deploying solar power for low- and moderate-income households can be a way to fulfill policy and social goals like creating jobs and improving the environment.
The study described in this article was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Energy Technologies Office.
Galen Barbose is a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Eric O'Shaughnessy is a research consultant at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Ryan Wiser is a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Disclosure statements: Eric O'Shaughnessy is a renewable energy research analyst at Clean Kilowatts, LLC. Ryan Wiser is a board member of the Clean Energy States Alliance. Galen Barbose does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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