Nov 07, 2016

New project explores increasing solar among low- and moderate-income households

For the past three years, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative, faculty and students at Yale have studied the messaging and behavioral incentives that most effectively boost adoption rates of residential solar. A new infusion of $1.35 million will extend these findings to target an understanding of what drives uptake among low- and moderate-income populations.

Forty percent of United States households live on less than $44,000 per year, according to the Census Bureau; and 43 million people live in poverty. The unavoidable fact is that many families routinely choose between food on the table and lights on during winter nights. The results of this research will help serve two ends: first, they will mitigate the need for these choices by providing people on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder with avenues to obtaining solar power. Second, they will help solar power expand to its true potential.

“This project exemplifies the kind of work that the Center is proud to be a part of,” said Stuart DeCew, Program Director at Yale Center for Business and the Environment. “The academic questions are not only rigorous and pressing, but they can be—and are being—immediately applied to create real social and environmental change.”

During the first three years of the project, between 2012 and 2015, the number of homes in Connecticut with solar panels grew by more than 1,500 percent, largely within the middle and upper classes. One essential driver of this transformation was a statewide program called Solarize that used public-private partnerships to reduce the “soft” costs of going solar—things like labor and customer acquisition. Paired with this program was a multiyear academic partnership between Yale and Duke Universities that assessed which aspects of Solarize were most persuasive to potential solar buyers. By building on these results and looking at opportunities in low- and moderate-income populations, the hope is to demonstrate similar growth potential in an often overlooked demographic.

This project will also quantify benefits to the electricity grid from programs that expedite and increase deployment of solar energy. Pilot projects in three states will then field-test the models developed under this work, using lessons learned to encourage more low- and moderate-income populations to go solar.

Over the past three years, CBEY has supported research on and analysis of this work, which clearly represents the value of aligning public and private resources. Working in coordination, different state actors not only boosted installation numbers 15-fold, but also reduced the average cost of residential solar by 20-30 percent while expanding the potential market: one out of five households that signed a contract through Solarize had never before considered installing panels.

The rollout of Solarize across Connecticut also provided masters and PhD students the opportunity to develop deep academic knowledge across a range of disciplines while contributing to broad, real-world solutions. Given CBEY’s role as a place that bridges not only the realms of business and environmental interests, but also academic and practical knowledge, this project has proved a wonderful match for the Center.

CBEY is now creating a “how-to” guidebook based on the findings that will serve as a practical resource for other states and communities interested in going solar. The Center expects to present this guide in early December.

For information on this work, visit our webpage. For general information, visit the US Department of Energy website on Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Studies.