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New Study Maps Consumer Attitudes and Behavior Toward Home Solar

Researchers examine the how and why of consumer uptake (or resistance) to residential solar

The study includes both residential solar photovoltaic or solar thermal (hot water) systems. It’s a project of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) SunShot Initiative, which delivered $2.3 million in grant funds, called SEEDS – Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Studies.

Headed up by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL – one of 12 DOE labs engaged in renewable energy and energy efficiency – the study ties NREL experts to a team of solar energy savants from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), Clean Power Finance, the Social and Environmental Research Institute, Portland State University, the University of Arizona, the University of Michigan, and the University of Colorado.

Solar Energy, a Brief History of Costs and Efficiencies

Solar energy is no longer in its infancy. Cost and delivery hurdles have been cleared, and the lower prices and more competitive behavior of solar-market survivors has consolidated gains in both efficiency and consumer appeal. In 2008, experts predicted grid parity for solar by 2015– grid parity being a comparable cost-per-watt to traditional fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, and even nuclear energy. Grid parity has been achieved in several states across the US.

In fact, in many areas across the country, renewable energy alternatives supported by state and federal subsidies are now cheaper than coal or gas. But this transformative milestone – grid parity – does not explain the ins and outs of consumer uptake, or why some homeowners explore the solar energy marketplace and then opt out, choosing instead measures like the added efficiency of new appliances to massage their “green” spot.

As industry insiders James Tong (a VP at Clean Power Finance) and Benjamin Sigrin (NREL energy systems engineer) note, going solar – whether in photovoltaic (PV) electricity panels or thermal hot water panels – requires a sizeable investment in time, money, and patience. Subsidies are as varied as grains of beach sand, permitting requirements a complete boondoggle, and most city, county and state licensing inspectors are scarcely able to keep themselves up-to-date on the rules.

Better (most consumers decide) to put in that new, 95-percent efficient gas-fired furnace and save one’s energy and bank account for other things, like that bath remodeling project that’s been on hold for five years.

SEEDS Identifies the Drawbacks

The NREL group has been working to change this attitude. First steps involve making the public aware of the true costs, benefits (and drawbacks) of solar energy. For example, the price of electricity sold from large-scale projects Like Mojave Solar to utilities has dropped by more than 70 percent since 2008. The cost of installation for these utility-scale solar projects has also fallen, by more than 33 percent since 2009.

In fact, the only drawback to solar is its sporadic behavior. This is also the major reason why solar (and wind) won’t replace traditional generation fuels in the foreseeable future, though both sources can, and will, cut usage and therefore the emissions driving climate change and ocean acidification.

But back to pricing. Given the figures cited earlier, NREL felt obliged to bring in a panel of behavioral experts to work with its solar specialists to answer the question: why would homeowners and small businesses turn down (or fail to take advantage of) solar energy and the resultant 12- to 15-percent off their utility bills?

Synopsis from the Behaviorists

Velocify Research has some answers:

  1. Like so many interested individuals drawn in by an ad but left to dangle on a worm, solar energy shoppers respond quite positively to an immediate response, but not after a day or so. Better to produce fewer leads and handle them promptly. Response within one minute has been shown to boost conversions (from query to sale) by almost 400 percent, based on Velocify’s database of 3 million leads.
  2. The best advice for solar sales representatives is the same as in other retail fields: listen more, talk less. People who make an  appointment to learn more about solar may not want to learn what you, the salesperson, find most exciting, important, or dramatic. Give them the basics, and then let them talk. Remember; there is no such thing as a stupid question.
  3. Offer explanations, but don’t get lost in a forest of details. Provide several options initially and explain them carefully. Showing a future customer a page-long list of options is like showing a woman a rack of dresses. They all look good, but she only needs to know which one fits and is affordable.

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