The solar energy industry is at the forefront of a new growth phase, driven largely by increasing consumer demand, cost competitiveness, technology improvements, and industry enterprise. The earliest PV adopters were driven mainly by environmental concerns and tech, while later adopters are influenced predominantly by economic gains. Adoption patterns of solar technology also reflect social dynamics that direct the speed and scale of energy transitions. Disparities in solar participation reveal underlying problems where targeted interventions may be required to ensure a just, equitable energy transition is achieved. Women as solar adopters is one such area of largely unexplored potential in the industry.
Many variables are in play right now in the solar industry, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association.
- As hardware costs have fallen, soft costs have increased as a share of total system costs primarily due to increased customer acquisition costs and inconsistent building code and permitting practices across jurisdictions.
- The biggest cost-decline opportunity in residential and small commercial solar exists in soft costs, which includes labor, permitting/inspection/interconnection, supply chain, customer acquisition, and other overhead costs.
- By 2025, more than 25% of all behind-the-meter solar systems will be paired with storage, compared to under 5% in 2019, which increases independence and energy resilience.
With a broader lens, the solar industry has accumulated many accomplishments in the last decade and increased its appeal to consumers. It has:
- shown how solar can be the least expensive source of electricity
- promoted the ways it reduces air pollution, water usage, and dependence on non-renewable energy sources
- provided a mechanism to fight the climate crisis
What solar marketing hasn’t done so far, however, is to target its messaging toward women. Women drive the majority of consumer spending. By 2028, according to Nielsen research, women will own 75% of the discretionary spend, making them the world’s greatest influencers. Knowing who is — or is not — participating in the adoption of cleaner energy sources can help guide more effective solar policy and communication strategies.
What We Know About Solar Adopters Right Now
A 2020 Berkeley Lab report focuses on systems installed through 2018 and includes data for roughly 1.4 million residential rooftop solar adopters across the country. The report is based on household-level income estimates for single-family residential solar adopters across the United States and is intended to serve as a foundational reference document for policy-makers, industry stakeholders, and other researchers interested in demographic trends among residential solar adopters.
Key findings from this report, which looks primarily at adoption across income levels, include the following:
- Solar adopters span all income ranges, including low-to-moderate (LMI) households.
- Solar-adopter incomes skew high relative to the broader population, though less so when compared to just owner-occupied households (OO-HHs), and also less so when compared to other households in the same local area (e.g., county or census tract).
- The degree of disparity varies significantly across states and local markets.
- Solar adoption has been gradually migrating toward lower income ranges over time, reflecting both a broadening and a deepening of US solar markets.
- Solar adopters also skew high in terms of home value and credit score, relative to the broader population.
In addition, 2 studies making use of an available dataset of rooftop solar deployment from Google’s Project Sunroof are informative. First, against the backdrop of today’s acute partisan divisions, one study finds encouraging evidence of ideological diversity among solar adopters. The authors’ analysis concludes that “households composed of Democrats are only about four percentage points more likely to have rooftop solar than households composed of Republicans.” A second study provides an outlook in terms of disparate adoption rates between racial groups. When accounting for either income or home ownership, the authors report majority black, Hispanic, and Asian areas exhibit less rooftop PV adoption relative to predominantly white or mixed census tract areas.
Indeed, while research devoted to solar adoption audiences like this can help steer the industry, far fewer studies have targeted women as solar adopters. Solar has a missed opportunity to bring female consumers into the solar family and to embrace them as brand champions.
Emerging Research Points to Potential Female Solar Adopters
The need to understand what women want from solar has grown — and could be more impactful — as links emerge between consumer interest in rooftop PV and electric vehicles, home energy storage, and smart thermostats. PV Magazine describes industry discourse around the need to acknowledge that women’s perspectives about solar differ from men’s, yet that realization is only a starting place. Clearly, next steps must consider factors involved in converting females into solar adopters.
A study described in Ecological Economics points out that aesthetic aspects of solar panels are key for expanding the customer base, and that likely adopters are more likely than likely non-adopters to be surrounded by neighbors, friends, and relatives who have already installed solar panels. Our results also reveal that the premium segment cares more about aesthetic aspects in general purchasing decisions and shows higher ecological concern than the value segment.
Chelsea Schelly and James Letzelter examined the key drivers of residential solar adoption in upstate New York. They found that women were more likely to indicate environmental factors as the most important decision factor. The researchers say this indicates a key area of opportunity, as states can work to ensure public trust in installers and installers can work to build relationships of trust with communities as these entities both seek to enhance the rate of PV adoption at the residential scale.
A study in Energy Research & Social Science draws on theories of social practice and domestication, paying particular attention to how the phases of appropriation, objectification, incorporation, and conversion of household solar systems are gendered. By this, the authors argue that women and men have different economic, social, and cultural capital, which, in turn, influences their interaction with technology in the transition from consumers to prosumers. Viewing prosuming through the gender lens reveals how policies need to be designed to promote new practices that are attractive for a more diverse group than today’s standard subsidies and feed-in tariffs if the aim is to increase the number of residential prosumers and transition to a more sustainable and equitable low-carbon energy system.
Sposato and Hampi examined the impact of various constructs, including worldviews, with respect to individuals’ acceptance of renewable energy technologies in their vicinity. They found that individuals who value the common good and equality are more supportive of renewable energy technologies in their vicinity. Research indicates that women tend toward embracing such social constructs.
The gender gap represents a barrier to solar industry growth. Zooming in on data-rich analyses and studying them helps us to understand more about ways to incorporate greater numbers of women into the solar energy transition now underway. Scaling up such deliberate efforts will be an essential step to ensure that women are experiencing the economic and personal benefits of taking part in the clean energy transition.
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