In 2020, ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ often means getting solar panels
This past weekend, I was basking in the sun on my porch, reading, when I overheard my neighbors discussing something that made me put my book down and listen.
This group of neighbors was standing (properly-social-distanced) in the street watching their children play, and they were talking about whether or not they had considered installing solar panels on their homes. Given that I spend every day thinking about advancing renewable energy through education, advocacy and policy, my ears immediately perked up.
One woman mentioned that she hadn’t given solar power much thought but would certainly be open to it. One man said that he had gotten quotes for how much it would cost to put solar on his house and was seriously considering it because the panels would pay for themselves in energy savings in just a few years. The group went on to talk about our neighbor Jerry’s solar panels and the fact that just about every street in our neighborhood has multiple solar-powered homes.
The man considering putting solar panels on his home told the rest of the group that solar really is contagious. Once one neighbor goes solar, you want to do it too.
At this point, I was ready to jump out of my chair, so excited about witnessing the impromptu focus group on my priority issue taking place near my porch.
These “neighbor effects” are a real phenomenon. It’s well-documented that where solar panels get installed on a roof, it becomes much more likely that other homeowners in that neighborhood will also install panels. The closer the neighbor, the bigger the effect.
The neighbor effect around solar is logical. After all, the ins and outs of installing solar and financing the system can feel unfamiliar and perhaps daunting for many Americans. Seeing solar pop up on a nearby home both normalizes renewable energy and makes it easier for others to imagine and visualize putting panels on their own home.
Some communities have expanded solar energy by leveraging the power of the “neighbor effect” through “Solarize” programs that bring customers together in a town for bulk purchasing. The neighbors who sign up work together to negotiate better rates, select an installer for the group, and boost demand over a limited period of time. The economies of scale that come from Solarize campaigns spur solar development while providing a host of benefits, including educating the public about solar options and lowering costs.
Solarize programs can help amplify the “neighbor effect” because they involve extensive community outreach. Cities often partner with state agencies, non-profit organizations, neighborhoods and solar installers to spread the word — how it works, the benefits, and the cost. For example, when Portland, Oregon, became the first city in the United States to have a solarize program in 2009, it got 300 contracts signed in the first six months. In Athens, Georgia, a solarize program more than tripled the residential solar energy capacity of the city in less than five months.
Solarize programs and other efforts that leverage the neighbor effect have helped drive solar growth across the United States. Today, the U.S. has enough solar capacity installed to power the equivalent of more than 14.5 million homes.
But, we still have a lot of untapped potential. My team and I created these tools for cities and towns to help us take full advantage of the sun. We’ve partnered with Energy Sage to help individual consumers, like my neighbors, get clear unbiased information when they are deciding what kind of solar set-up is right for them. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to more eavesdropping on my neighbors talking about solar and more importantly, seeing more solar panels pop up in my neighborhood.