More lower-income US households are adopting solar

A new report finds that rooftop solar is growing among low- and moderate-income households, though the industry still has a wealth gap problem.

a neighborhood of modest two-story houses with solar panels on their roofs
(Dennis Schroeder/NREL)
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Home solar isn’t just for high rollers. A November report by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has found that even though it’s mostly wealthy customers who put solar on their roofs, households with low and moderate incomes are taking an increasing share of the market.

The report is part of an ongoing effort since 2010 to track the demographics of rooftop solar adopters, benchmarks that help make sure that communities that have historically borne the brunt of the energy industry are not left out,” said Galen Barbose, research scientist in the Electricity Markets and Policy Department at LBNL.

To get information on home solar installations, the research team draws from public and private databases, including from utilities and state agencies. The most recent study includes 2.8 million systems covering about 86 percent of all residential rooftop solar in the U.S. through 2021, with modeled household-income estimates. 

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The team reports that broadly, solar adopters still tend to be affluent, white and middle-aged. They also speak primarily English, have higher education levels, and work in business and finance. But the findings also suggest that solar growth is becoming more equitably distributed across the U.S.

The team compared median 2021 incomes for households that installed solar from 2010 through last year. They found that median household income dropped from $129,000 for 2010 adopters to $110,000 for 2021 adopters. (That amount is still higher than the median household income of all homeowners in the U.S. in 2021 cited in the report: $79,000.)

The gap in income levels between households that install solar and the broader population is narrowing, Barbose said. If you look at the full distribution of solar adopters, there are large swaths of that population who come from middle- and…more moderate-income households.”

Line graph with years on the x-axis and and dollar amounts and relative income on the y-axes.
The median annual household income of U.S. home-solar adopters in dollar amounts (black line) and relative to county median income (blue line) has fallen since 2010. (LBNL)

In 2021, less affluent households accounted for a sizable chunk of the U.S. home solar market: 22 percent could be considered low-income, or making less than 80 percent of area median income, and an additional 21 percent could be considered moderate-income, or making between 80 and 120 percent of area median income, according to the report. That means that in total, 43 percent of households installing solar can be considered to fall into the lower-income category.

Residential solar is also rising in what the Department of Energy identifies as disadvantaged communities.” The Berkeley team used interim definitions the DOE developed in March 2022, which encompass dozens of criteria including energy burden, environmental and health hazards, and fossil fuel dependence. The percentage of solar adopters who live in these communities has more than doubled from 5 percent in 2010 to 11 percent in 2021. But that still falls short of the proportion of all U.S. households dwelling in disadvantaged communities: 18 percent.

Bar graph with years on the x-axis and percentage on the y-axis.
The percentage of residential solar adopters that live in DOE-designated disadvantaged communities or DACs (blue bars) has been rising overall since 2010, but it still falls below the 18 percent of all U.S. households that are located in these communities (dashed orange line). (LBNL)

According to the LBNL team, residential solar is spreading among lower-income households for several likely reasons, including falling prices, more widely available financing and state initiatives to expand access in these communities. Examples include California’s Single-Family Affordable Solar Homes Program, Illinois’ Solar for All program and Delaware’s Low- to Moderate-Income Solar Pilot Program (which just launched in July).

The LBNL research team also put out an interactive Solar Demographics Tool to allow stakeholders to dabble with different ways of visualizing the data at a more granular level. Users can find out things like which state has the largest percentage of solar adopters that earn $50,000 or less (spoiler: Louisiana), or which counties have the highest levels of low-income solar adopters, that is, households that earn up to 80 percent of the area median income (hot spots include Wayne County, Michigan and Lehigh County, Pennsylvania).

Once users dig into specific areas, I think that’s when this report is more helpful,” said Sydney Forrester, a scientific engineering associate at LBNL. The online tool can help give policymakers and other stakeholders the data they need to promote equitable access to clean energy, she added. 

A lot of states have these decarbonization goals,” Forrester told Canary Media. It’s going to be important to really involve everybody in that transition.”

The team will present highlights from the report during a webinar on Nov. 17.

Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media.