Solar energy has always been a popular vision for the far-off future. Over the last decade, though, renewable energy options and access have accelerated at a ferocious pace. Every other day brings news of a new energy startup or initiative working to democratize access to more affordable, more reliable, and more sustainable power for people all over the world.
Despite that progress, overall energy consumption remains dominated by fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources. Solar and wind use have grown significantly over the past decade, but as of 2018, those sources were still less than 4% of energy use within the U.S. The progress has been remarkable, but to make the leap to the sustainable future, that progress must become exponential.
Considering the State of Solar Adoption
Arguments abound over which source of sustainable energy is the right one for every situation. Solar, however, is currently leading with the largest percentage growth of any U.S. energy source over the last decade. In 2008, solar generated just about 2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. Yet in 2018, solar generated more than 96 billion kilowatt-hours.
Even with the significant increase, solar still only accounts for 1% of energy production in the U.S. Additionally, people using solar power have not fully embraced the solution, making a strong case for the preferred energy source of the future. Why not?
Unfortunately, many people still believe their only path to enjoying solar power is to purchase solar panels for their own homes or office buildings. This immediately eliminates anyone who does not own a home or an office building. Further, panels are only available to homeowners and businesses with good credit in prime locations, so not everyone qualifies. Our latest survey, Consumer Perceptions of the Solar Industry (2020), discovered that just 20.9% of people believe homes can run on solar power without installing solar panels.
This is clearly not the case. Community or shared solar allows anyone — from renters to homeowners to businesses — to enjoy access to cheaper and more sustainable power. Until knowledge about shared solar becomes common knowledge, however, consumers will continue to operate under the false assumption that solar is out of reach.
Lack of trust presents another, more delicate, problem. The solar industry has its share of bad actors, just as every industry does. Without more knowledge about their options and how the industry works, more consumers are either falling prey to these bad actors or allowing the impressions created by bad actors to determine their perceptions of the industry on the whole. Our survey found that 61.4% of respondents believe the industry is “somewhat trustworthy” — not a bad start, but not good enough yet.
How to Overcome Challenges of Consumer Perception in Solar
The solar industry has an opportunity to make enormous gains with a bit of education focused on the right topics. To convert this opportunity into a certainty, companies must take a customer-first approach.
Customers have become accustomed to simple, easy-to-use solutions like Amazon and Uber in every part of their lives. by increased demand during the pandemic, even grocery shopping has become a technologically streamlined process. The energy industry, however, has not yet made the leap. Innovations on the business side have not translated to consumers.
In the U.S. and elsewhere, existing energy players and regulators are complicating what should be simple transactions, especially for businesses and consumers. Overcoming issues of trust starts with simplifying the energy industry into a basic offering that is both clear to everyone and accessible to anyone who wants to participate. Instead of asking lawyers to read solar panel installation contracts, consumers should be able to sign up for solar power quickly and easily.
Community solar provides the most effective and accessible solution to this problem. When people can sign up for cheaper and more sustainable energy regardless of their property ownership status or location, they embrace the option easily. Our research found that 88.3% of consumers would sign up for solar energy if they could do so without installing panels, but because they don’t know other options are available, they don’t act.
Several states have begun to encourage the adoption of this model through community solar initiatives. Developers and companies build the solar farms and work with a third-party platform or a utility, then community members can choose to sign up to access the savings while using a renewable source, but without having to purchase and install their own solar panels. This increase in potential users allows developers to reach more people more easily.
It is the responsibility of everyone within the renewable energy sector to do their part both to create the infrastructure for the future of power and to educate consumers about the potential benefits. In doing so, the good actors of the industry will shine a light on shady practices, reducing the ability of bad actors to take advantage of uneducated consumers and improving the reputation of the industry as a whole. This is the path forward for democratized renewable energy. Start with education, and the rest will follow.
Aviv Shalgi is a serial entrepreneur, and is the CEO of an energy tech startup, Solar Simplified. His military background, engineering career, and consulting experience have allowed Aviv to become a well-rounded business leader. As an innovator, Aviv has always been focused on positive disruption in industries where there are opportunities to solve fundamental problems. This is what drew him to Solar Simplified, where he strives to make affordable renewable energy accessible to everyone, while providing consumers with guaranteed savings and making the process simple and transparent for consumers, solar developers and regulators.