The solar revolution is being fought by the middle class

Photovoltaic democracy.
Photovoltaic democracy.
Image: AP/Mel Evans
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American utility executives worry that the solar boom will cost them revenue as homeowners generate their own electricity. Some have depicted solar enthusiasts as green elites who will saddle their less wealthy neighbors with higher energy costs as rates are raised to maintain the power grid.

But that’s a myth, according to a study released today that finds the vast majority of homeowners who install solar panels belong to the middle class. The report from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think thank, analyzed data in the three states with the most solar systems: Arizona, California, and New Jersey. Researchers then correlated the location of the solar panels with income information from the US Census Bureau.

In Arizona, for instance, nearly 80% of solar systems were installed by homeowners who live in neighborhoods with median annual incomes between $40,000 and $90,000. Those earning more than $90,000 accounted for just 13% of photovoltaic systems. In California, the biggest solar state, the middle class installed 67% of rooftop solar, while the wealthy bought or leased nearly 30%. The story was similar in New Jersey, where middle class homeowners accounted for 63% of solar installations.

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“While it is true that the wealthy are generally the first adopters of new technologies, our research suggests that solar technology has moved beyond the early adopter phenomenon and onto more widespread installation by the middle class,” the report states.

Why? The report doesn’t say, but the advent of no-money-down leases for solar systems has meant that homeowners can forgo the five-figure capital costs of buying photovoltaic panels and instead make monthly payments that often are less than the price of buying electricity from their local utility.

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Documenting the democratization of solar will provide more ammunition for photovoltaic partisans who have been fighting utility efforts to impose fees on homeowners with solar systems to compensate for a loss of revenues.

But while solar homeowners may not be the Tesla Model S-driving, New York Times-reading coastal elites depicted by well-compensated utility executives, neither are they the working class. The study found that only 4% of California homeowners earning less than $40,000 year have gone solar.