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California Republicans have more solar panels than Democrats

Yes, you read that right.

Solar electrical panels are installed on the roof of a home in Glendale, CA. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/REED SAXON
Solar electrical panels are installed on the roof of a home in Glendale, CA. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/REED SAXON

Republican-leaning areas in California are five times more likely to have solar panels than Democratic areas.

You read that right.

In California, where the sun always shines and Democrats tend to win, Republican neighborhoods seem to be into renewable energy more than Democratic communities, according to a Solar Pulse report released this month.

If you are bit thrown off, researchers were baffled by the findings, too. “Yes, the findings were a bit counter-intuitive,” Paul Zalewski, director of digital marketing for Solar Pulse, told the San Diego Union Tribune.

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That’s because Republican voters, similarly to Republican elected officials, are generally associated with distrusting renewable energy, particularly subsidies for the green industry. (Quick note: Oil and gas companies receive a number of permanent tax incentives in the United States that just in 2013 totaled some $18.5 billion.)

And yet Solar Pulse, a Denver-based energy company, found that over the past five years Californians in Republican leaning areas — that is, areas that tend to elect a Republican to Congress — are more likely to buy solar for their homes than those in Democratic areas.

According to the report, more than one in every 100 households in areas that elected Republicans bought solar panels in the last five years, compared to just 1 in every 500 households in Democratic areas.

To reach these findings, the company reviewed data on 25,000 California houses that installed solar panels from 1997 to 2015, and looked into the political leanings of the areas with the highest proportion of solar homes.

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Researchers then tested partisanship effect on solar purchases using the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) — which scores the representatives of each congressional district based on the partisanship of their voting record — and divided areas as either Very Republican, Mildly Republican, Mildly Democratic, Moderately Democratic, or Very Democratic.

CREDIT: Solar Pulse
CREDIT: Solar Pulse

The conclusion: Very Republican houses were just somewhat less likely to buy solar than Mildly Republican homes.

Why this is happening is less clean cut, however. At first, researchers figured that income could be the driving factor, because wealthy homeowners go solar at higher rates.

Yet it turns out that Democratic districts have a median per capita income that is about $8,000 higher than Republican districts.

That led researchers to theorize that home ownership rates might play a role, since home owners are more likely to finance long-term investments like solar systems, and actually own the roof to place a solar panel. Moreover, solar companies prefer working with owners, not renters.

Indeed, home ownership seemed to be a factor, as Democratic districts have far more renters. In fact, some 40 percent of Republican homes rent, while nearly 50 percent of California Democrats are renters, according to the report

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The most important explanation of why this is happening, however, is geography, the report notes. In California, Republican districts are usually found in the southeastern part of the state, which enjoys more sun, and is more likely to have spacious suburb homes that can better accommodate solar systems.

A good example of such a place would be Ramona, a semi-rural community known for its large homes and ranches just northeast of San Diego. The area has been overwhelmingly Republican for decades but it’s a hotspot of rooftop solar in San Diego County.

So as this study shows, a household’s decision to implement solar is less associated with political affiliation than one would think. This comes as polls consistently show that the Republican electorate as a whole favors renewable energy development not just in progressive California, but also in other places that are traditionally more conservative like the swing state of Ohio.

Even the founder of a GOP-supporting clean energy super PAC noted earlier this month that Republicans are “evolving” on climate change and green energy issues. “I think a lot of these issues are evolving, the electorate is evolving and the candidates are evolving,” said ClearPath Action founder Jay Faison, according to The Hill.

A change in the electorate mindset is perhaps reflective of ever clearer proof that clean energy isn’t just a good way to curtail greenhouse gas emissions now driving human-caused climate change and its myriad damaging effects — renewable energy is also proving to be a major source of jobs that can help stall or lower electricity costs, and people seem to be noticing that.

But while the electorate may be internalizing the benefits and favor renewable energy, some candidates nonetheless overlook the industry. Just this week, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said solar energy had been, in his experience, a disaster.

“We invested in a solar company, our country. That was a disaster. They lost plenty of money on that one,” said Trump, who went on to add,“I’m a great believer in all forms of energy, but we’re putting a lot of people out of work.”

It’s unclear what Trump exactly meant with his comments. Especially because solar jobs are growing faster than jobs in the fossil fuel sector are being lost. In fact, over the last year the solar industry added jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the economy, according to Solar Jobs Census.