If, as Brian F. Keane maintains, Americans’ buying decisions are motivated by (a) I want and (b) I need, where does solar power fit in?
Keane, president of SmartPower, a national nonprofit organization that creates community programs for energy efficiency and clean energy, says 80 percent of Americans want solar power, but only 3 percent obtain it.
“That’s because we don’t think we need it, because our houses and offices already come with energy,” Keane said.
He works with groups and neighborhoods to make solar more affordable for homeowners.
A lot of things have been working against solar power, he said, and one of the biggest is “that for the last 30 years, we have been marketing it as being good for the environment.”
“Most of us don’t base our purchasing decisions on whether something is good for us, but because of its value to us,” he said.
Such good-for-the-environment marketing implies that solar energy involves a lifestyle change, something consumers typically are unwilling to do.
The chief argument against solar has long been, “What do we do at night or when it rains?” Keane said.
Since the output of a solar system is sold to the owner’s utility, there’s no risk of being left without power.
“People are generally suspicious of utility companies, so when you make the argument for solar,” which provides 10 percent of the nation’s power, “they look for a gimmick,” he said.
Consumers also are turned off by the costs of buying and installing solar panels, the perceived complexity of financing the work, and the length of time they believe it will take to recoup the cost of their investment, he said.
Yet, “if consumers were really concerned about rates of return on investment, no one would buy cars,” Keane said, “since they lose value once you drive them off the lot.”
“We buy cars to get places, and no car dealership ever asks you to come up with the money up front – instead, they say, ‘We can finance it for you.’ “
That’s true these days of solar, as more banks are willing to provide low-interest loans for it, and states such as New Jersey continue to lead the way with incentives for residential and commercial renewable-energy installations.
New Jersey is second in the nation in total number of homes and businesses with solar panels installed, and it has one of the most favorable net-metering standards in the country, the Solar Energy Industries Association says.
In Pennsylvania, “solar is a challenge,” Keane said, and SmartPower is looking to bring its program to Pittsburgh as a starting point.
Solar installations in Pennsylvania in the second quarter of this year were pretty much all commercial, the solar industries group said – hardly noticeable compared with New Jersey’s 75 megawatts of new systems for residential, commercial, and utilities.
Hard costs of solar installation – for photovoltaic panels – have dropped substantially in the last few years, thanks to a flood of products from Japan and China.
Soft costs – “getting it on the roof,” as Keane put it – remain high, so his group’s goal is to go to cities and neighborhoods to get residents, five or 10 at a time, “to leverage personnel and hard costs.” Group buying would cut costs by 20 percent.
Keane said solar power is a “piece of a diversified energy portfolio,” along with natural gas, wind, and hydroelectric power.
Houses and offices are more energy-efficient than ever, but “our use has climbed and our capacity has fallen precipitously,” he said. “Every solar panel helps our capacity issue.”