Solar For the 99%? Two Thirds of California Solar Installs Are in Median-Income Zip Codes

Think solar is only for the 1%? Not so fast.

New data from California shows that two thirds of solar PV installations from 2009 to 2011 were in zip codes with median household incomes between $40,000 and $84,000, according to analysis from PV Solar Report and SunRun.

Solar PV is often criticized as an “eco-chic” technology only available for the richest, most fashionable greenies. Of course, if you’ve followed the solar industry (or invested in a system of your own), you know that is not true.

Yes, the upfront costs of investing in a system can still be prohibitive, particularly in states without good incentive programs. But the falling cost of equipment combined with innovative “solar services” and group purchasing programs can actually make solar energy cheaper than grid-based electricity in some states.

The installation trends in the industry — the emergence of point-of-sale financing, growth in plug-and-play systems, dramatic improvements in hardware and electronics, and better installation techniques — are making the technology accessible to a wide range of consumers.

We should be careful not to make sweeping conclusions about this California-specific data. But let’s remember, this is a solar market that just passed the 1-GW installation mark, a feat only accomplished by a few other countries.

And as it’s often said: “So goes California, so goes the nation.”

11 Responses to Solar For the 99%? Two Thirds of California Solar Installs Are in Median-Income Zip Codes

  1. dana1981 says:

    I’m in that median income Californian group, and had solar panels installed in 2010. It was made possible by solar leasing programs offered by a few solar companies in California (I used Sungevity, but Solar City and one or two others offer basically the same leasing options).

    Over the 10 year lease, my electric costs will roughly break even as compared to staying purely on the grid. The more electricity consumed, the more likely a household is to save money on these leases. My home doesn’t use much electricity to begin with, so I was only able to break even. But over the first year, the system produced 450 kWh more than we consumed, so our electricity was effectively emissions-free. As was my commute to work on my electric moped. Not bad for effectively zero cost, compared to staying purely on the grid.

  2. David B. Benson says:

    “As Maine, so goes the nation.”
    “As Vermont, so goes the nation”

    Somehow I don’t expect much solar PV installation except in the sunny south.

  3. Leif says:

    I live in the PNW. 48+ N 122+ W. admittedly in a rain shadow so we get more sun than would be expected for the NW. We fall in the low middle of your red group. We will receive about 10% return on our investment for ~8+ years at which time most of our investment will be covered. We have had a zero electric bill for the past 4 months and will be significantly reduced even this month. Winter rainy short days take their toll as expected but we still are looking at a winter bill of ~ $60/month for 4 electric heating months and then should be breaking even as the days warm & lengthen. I do take advantage of passive solar and good insulation, conservation, state of the art ductless heat pump, etc. I am thrilled with it. I defy you to match that on Wall Street if you are not an insider. It is in my back yard and I can and do fondle it. In your face Wall Street! I employed local labor and used WA products so I receive and appreciate a feed in tariff rebate. Thank you Washington tax payers all.

  4. CW says:

    When I see a fancy vehicle go by I often think something like, “Has the money for solar panels, but would rather buy status at an expense than a healthier planet with a return”.

    The Eco-chic thing might be a very specific list. If I think of the wealthy I know, this seems to apply to hybrids, personal care products, food, and housing efficiency, but hasn’t hit PV yet in a big way at least where I live.

    Up the status of PV — that is make a social change, not an economic one — and odds are more of the 1% will start to buy them. Because heaven knows it’s not the size of the upfront investment required of PV that’s the barrier for them.

  5. Be careful with your inferences here. Just because solar installations went into zip codes with modest median incomes doesn’t mean that the people buying them have modest incomes. There is always a distribution, and they could be people at the high end of the income distribution. So until more disaggregated data are released, I’d be cautious about drawing the conclusion from these data that people of modest means are buying solar in large numbers.

  6. adelady says:

    Speaking as a person of modest means, I’d suggest that for many people installing solar is the best return on money for people with not so very much to invest.

    If you’ve got a modest nest-egg, or access to a leasing arrangement or a green loan, you’d be hard pressed to find another investment with such a reliable, early return. And this is one of very few investments you can make where you get both capital improvement (in the value of your home) and the sure and certain knowledge that the annual cash value will increase – as prices for standard grid supplied power can only increase.

    I’ll admit our subsidy scheme was pretty good on the capital cost and fantastic on the feed in tariff, but for a mere $2500 outlay we’ve clocked up over $100 value in power supplied to the grid during the last 8 weeks. Even at twice the price and half the return we’d still be doing well.

  7. joyce says:

    I second that opinion. We are very modest income, yet have a 7K system installed. We live in the Pacific Northwest–and still it provides a significant reduction in our bills. Most will not think twice about remodelling their kitchen or adding an addition–yet balk at the cost of solar. The incentives the past year made it more enticing–and the fact that we’ve got several terrific local companies who are wonderful to work with also helped. I can’t think of any “wealthy” people in our town that installed solar. Maybe they can afford their electric bills and don’t like the look on their roofs…

  8. Max Wilbert says:

    Incomes above $34,000/year are in the 1% globally. Solar panels do not challenge the system of unequal wealth distribution and resource extraction:

  9. Artful Dodger says:

    Yes privately owned solar panels do, Max. Anything that interrupts the planned future income stream of the Energy monopolies is a direct challenge. As is Efficiency, or using Less. That is why they fight it so vociferously.

  10. MarkfromLexington says:

    A 1 kW solar array installed in Portland, ME will generate 1,280 kWh of electricity per year.

    That same 1kW solar array installed in Santa Clara, CA will generate 1,446 kWh of electricity per year.

    So solar panels installed in ME are only 11.5% less productive than those in CA.

    It just isn’t true that solar is only viable in the sunny south.

  11. Sam says:

    The Credit solely goes to the leasing program as the home owner does not have to pay upfront costs for the solar equipment
    Free Energy Audit