Rooftop Solar Panels: Contradicting statements that solar largely is the province of the rich, recent studies have shown people with middle-class incomes are the biggest adopters of rooftop solar in states with the largest markets. Image: SolarShop Australia/Flickr
People with middle-class incomes are the biggest adopters of rooftop solar in states with the largest markets, a study said yesterday.
In Arizona, California and New Jersey, installations are "overwhelmingly" in neighborhoods where median incomes range from $40,000 to $90,000, the Center for American Progress (CAP) analysis said.
"Middle-class homeowners are overwhelmingly taking advantage of rooftop solar," said Mari Hernandez, research associate at CAP. "It really is becoming more of a middle-class tool and a middle-class energy resource.
The study challenges recent statements from some electric utilities, Hernandez said, that solar largely is the province of the rich and that consumers without solar subsidize those with rooftop panels.
The growth of solar and who receives benefits from it have been hot topics politically in states that include California, Arizona and Colorado. Utilities in those states have argued that changes in rates and fixed fees are needed because of net energy metering, a system that gives people with renewable power bill credits for surplus electricity sent to the grid. Utilities say customers with solar don't pay their fair share of transmission and distribution charges.
A draft study last month from the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC -- one ordered by the Legislature -- agreed, saying that homeowners with rooftop solar pay less than they should for electricity. It also found that net metering will cost the state's three large utilities $1.1 billion per year by 2020, about 3.2 percent of their expected revenues (ClimateWire, Sept. 30).
Utilities in California said they couldn't quickly address details of the CAP study. But in comments this month on the CPUC analysis, they contended that solar with net energy metering creates inequities.
"The majority of the cross-subsidies in [Southern California Edison's] territory overwhelmingly benefit high usage residential customers at the expense of customers that cannot or do not install solar PV," the utility also known as SCE wrote. "Systems that allow customers to avoid full retail rates, like [net energy metering], create subsidies paid by non-participating rate payers."
Pacific Gas and Electric Co., or PG&E, in Northern California has the highest number of rooftop solar customers in the country, with more than 95,000 as of September. That's growing by about 1,800 installations every month.
"We definitely agree that rooftop solar's come of age," said PG&E spokesman David Eisenhauer, referencing the CAP report. "Installation costs have dropped. We're really encouraged to see more and more people installing rooftop solar across all income levels."
Rooftop solar currently constitutes less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the electricity produced in the United States, the report said. In California, however, it is 1 percent and projected to grow to as much as 4 percent over the next decade. Utilities see that as a threat to their profits, solar advocates have said.
The fight over net metering has national implications, Hernandez said, as 43 states have some form of the system. Many are grappling with how to go forward as solar popularity surges.
"Regulators and policymakers should consider that it's not just wealthy customers that are adopting solar," Hernandez said. "This is actually bigger than that. This is something that has become something that is really important to the middle class and is being heavily adopted by the middle class.
"Changes to net metering will not only affect wealthy customers. They will affect middle-class homeowners," she added.