This article is part of our new State of Solar Adoption 2021 Series will interview a diverse mix of solar experts with the goal of better understanding their perspectives on the current state and future of solar adoption, what is holding the industry back, tips on how to boost adoption, and more.
The following is an interview we had recently with Rosana Francescato, Communications Director, Clean Coalition.
What is the state of solar adoption today?
RF: Throughout the decade I’ve been working in solar, people have been asking whether we’re at the tipping point for solar adoption — and implying that we might be there. If you look at the adoption curve, the tipping point would be the point between early majority and late majority adopters. We’ve certainly proceeded past the early adopters and into the early majority, but we have yet to exhaust that group. The good news is that this means there’s still a large untapped market for much more solar deployment.
While we may not yet be at a real tipping point, solar adoption is already speeding up. It took 40 years for the U.S. to get to 1 million solar roofs, and just 3 more years to get to 2 million.
Even that is just a small fraction of the rooftop solar potential in the US. And rooftops doesn’t just mean homes; it also means commercial buildings, schools, and other municipal buildings — many of which can install solar on their parking lots, too. We have an enormous amount of solar siting potential on rooftops, parking lots, and parking structures, even in densely populated urban areas. In fact, a recent study found that the US has enough space on rooftops to match our total current energy generation.
One reason solar adoption has sped up, of course, is that costs have plummeted in the last decade. Another factor that’s speeding up solar adoption now is the increasing number and duration of power grid outages, whether they’re caused by natural disasters fueled by climate change or planned utility power shutoffs. Individuals and businesses want the resilience of solar coupled with energy storage, as well as the cost savings. And more people are seeing the necessity of switching to clean energy to power our lives — to help avoid the very disasters that are cutting off their power.
What are 3-5 things holding back the mainstream adoption of solar energy?
RF: Policy, policy, and policy. Okay, education is important too.
Policy has always been the key driver of solar adoption, overshadowing sunshine (sorry!) as a solar resource. Policy is what made Germany, with 70% less sunshine than California, a global solar leader. And policy is why Minnesota and Massachusetts are among the top states for community solar.
Many of the issues impeding solar adoption can be traced back to policy. Financing is one example: even with lower costs, solar is still out of reach for many people. Policies like the Investment Tax Credit remove some of the barriers, as do good net energy metering (NEM) policies and the ability to enter into power purchase agreements (PPAs). States that don’t have NEM or don’t allow PPAs fall to the bottom of the list in terms of residential and commercial-scale solar adoption.
In California, we’re facing a serious threat to NEM, which would be disastrous for rooftop solar in the state. The utilities’ proposed plan would add an average fee of $65-90/month to residential solar projects and lower the NEM credit, doubling the payback period for these systems. The California Solar and Storage Association has calculated that under this policy, solar installers would need to be able to sell solar for $1.28 per watt, meaning that many installers would go out of business.
While this is a dramatic battle, it’s just one of the issues we face in the policy arena. By some calculations, as many as 75% of people can’t put solar on their roof, even with NEM. They may not own their home, live in a multi-unit building, have a shaded roof, or encounter other issues. For those people, we need robust community solar programs, but most states still don’t have good community solar policies.
Commercial-scale solar faces numerous challenges. This market segment, which propelled Germany to become a global solar leader, is woefully underserved in the U.S. NEM doesn’t work for many commercial-scale properties, which may not be owner-occupied.
As microgrids are becoming more popular, we’re seeing how the lack of supportive policies is holding them back. Despite an already lengthy microgrids proceeding at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which has the goal of commercializing microgrids, barriers to these deployments remain largely unaddressed.
In addition, solar is still not mainstream enough for most people to make the decision to go solar quickly and easily. For most people, going solar is a complicated and lengthy process. The lack of good education and messaging about the options available is a barrier we need to keep working to remove.
What more can be done to drive mainstream adoption of solar energy?
RF: Creating — and maintaining — the right policies and market mechanisms is key.
Germany proliferated commercial-scale solar by enacting a feed-in tariff (FIT). While the Clean Coalition, a California nonprofit, has designed a number of market-responsive, cost-effective FITs, many more of these need to be put in place. We also need to fix interconnection for commercial-scale solar projects, which is generally more onerous, time-consuming, and expensive than for similarly sized NEM projects.
Beyond these and other policy fixes, we need to clarify the value proposition of solar for consumers. We can’t expect most consumers to become solar experts, but we can work on our messaging to help them understand what they need to consider when making decisions about going solar. Prices have come down more than most people realize, despite some lingering intractable soft costs (another area where work is needed). Consumers have more financing options to pick from, now that we have solar loans in addition to PPAs. But most individuals and businesses still have many questions about going solar, and it can be hard for them to navigate the information available to find the answers. We need more resources that make the process easier and less painful for them. And we need more solutions that integrate solar with energy storage, home electrification, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, and demand response — in a way that’s seamless and simple for consumers to adopt and use.
How would the world be different if 75% of all Americans used some form of solar energy?
RF: We’d have better outcomes in terms of economics, the environment, and resilience for our communities — especially if we stepped up deployment of local solar. A recent study by Vibrant Clean Energy used an extremely sophisticated model to show that if we scale up local solar+storage in addition to and in coordination with utility-scale renewables, we can decrease CO2 emissions by 95% by 2050 while saving Americans $473 billion. That doesn’t even account for the jobs created or for the many externalities, such as health costs — and the incalculable benefit of lives saved. Another recent report found that increasing our use of clean energy would save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Increasing our use of solar would also decrease reliance on foreign sources of fossil fuels, which would lead to increased national security.
While we need both utility-scale and local solar to achieve these goals, locally sited solar, when combined with energy storage, brings our communities resilience that you just can’t get from centrally generated energy. Recent wildfires, hurricanes, and floods have highlighted the urgent need for this resilience.
Why are you so passionate about working in solar?
RF: Climate change is the issue of our time — the one we must address above all else. And solar is a relatively low-hanging fruit as a tool for fighting climate change. That's why I made a career change into clean energy, and solar in particular, a decade ago. When I considered what would be the most meaningful work I could do, it didn't me take long to arrive at solar. And I've found that it's not only fulfilling doing work that's aligned with my core beliefs — I've also met so many wonderful people in this industry, because people tend to get into it for similar reasons. As we hear more devastating news about the effects of climate change, it feels good to be taking concrete action to mitigate its worst effects, and bring our communities economic, environmental, and resilience benefits.