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Interest in Community Solar Grows, Grid Connection Remains Vital

Solar energy is continuing its strong growth quarter after quarter. According to recent figures from Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), the US saw a record number of solar installations in the third quarter of 2016, and it’s predicted that record will be surpassed when fourth quarter figures are available.

In fact, between July and August, the U.S. installed enough solar energy to power over six million homes, and with more than one million residential installations and the growth of utility-scale solar, the size of the industry could double year over year.

In light of recent news on the growth of solar in the U.S., it’s an optimal time to share the findings from Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative’s (SGCC) Consumer Driven Technologies research.

This research was conducted as an online survey of 1,571 respondents from across the country and addressed four technologies and services: residential solar, community solar, utility-scale solar and electric vehicles. In an effort to better gauge the attitudes and preferences of solar and EV adopters, those groups were oversampled.

Shared solar could be the future

The Consumer Driven Technologies report uncovered several interesting findings worth noting. According to consumers’ responses, the acquisition model for solar may be changing. While research showed that the sole ownership model of solar and electric vehicle usage is still the top method of acquisition, consumer interest in leasing solar or entering into a power purchase agreement (PPA) is high.

While residential and utility-scale solar installations led the industry’s growth in 2016, community solar also witnessed unprecedented growth. In fact, according to SEIA’s numbers, community-oriented projects added more capacity in Q3 than the segment installed in all of 2015.

This new growth in community solar is likely being driven by two main factors. First, initial costs have been proven to be a significant barrier for the adoption of rooftop solar – especially for lower-income consumers. Solar non-adopters with annual incomes under $50,000 are much less likely than higher income respondents to installing residential solar systems.

Three-quarters of low-income respondents regard reductions to their monthly bill from credits received for electricity generated by a solar power systems as one of the main benefits, compared with 61 percent for higher income respondents.

But, even so, initial costs are a primary concern for all solar adopters and would-be adopters. It should be noted that while all groups stated that their preferred method is a “more cost-efficient way to implement solar”, those who prefer community solar note cost-efficiency much more frequently. This underscores how consumer preference for shared ownership is tied to the cost barrier associated with sole ownership models.

Second, shared ownership is trending in our society as a whole. Sunrun, the nation's leading home solar company, conducted a survey exploring consumers’ shifting attitudes and behaviors around renting, borrowing or leasing items like automobiles, bicycles, clothing, tools and home appliances versus owning them. According to their findings, more than half of Americans have rented, leased or borrowed the sorts of items people traditionally own in the last two years (52 percent), and more than eight out of 10 Americans (83 percent) said they would rent, lease or borrow these items, instead of buying them, if they could do so easily.

In addition to Sunrun’s research, there has been no shortage of articles in the last few years on the growth of the sharing economy, a multi-billion dollar sector driven by companies like Lyft, Uber and Airbnb that hasn’t begun to reach its limits.

Off-grid but still wanting to pay for backup grid power

The Consumer Driven Technologies report also revealed interesting findings on the role that utilities will play as solar grabs more and more of the market share.

The survey asked consumers whether it was “currently possible to go completely off-the-grid with solar power alone.” Nearly all respondents (90 percent) who had a high level of agreement on the ability to go off-grid with solar indicated a willingness to pay their energy provider for backup grid power when needed, and over a third (36 percent) of these respondents indicate a willingness to pay $25 or more monthly for backup grid power. Homeowners and higher income respondents were almost twice as willing to pay this amount or more.

Furthermore, consumers with technologies that enable local production and energy storage, like solar and EVs, indicate a clear value to remaining grid-connected rather than moving toward “islanding” off-the-grid. These consumers overwhelmingly recognize the value of the grid and are willing to pay for the essential and complementary services it provides them.

Finally, when respondents were asked how the involvement or endorsement of their utility influenced their adoption of solar and EV technologies, 42 percent stated that utility endorsement would make them more likely to adopt. Furthermore, research shows that utilities are the entity consumers relied on the most for accurate information about technologies like solar and EVs.

Conclusion

As solar energy continues to become a larger component of U.S. energy generation, there may be changes ahead in how exactly that energy is produced. As indicated in the “Consumer Driven Technologies” report, consumers interested in adopting solar are now more open to non-ownership through community-based and utility-scale solar. This, combined with consumers’ reliance on their utilities as a trusted source on information new energy-related technologies and services, points to a major role that utilities will play in the U.S. solar industry moving forward.

To download an executive summary of the Consumer Driven Technologies report, please visit www.smartgridcc.org/research

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