[OPINION] We are solar


Jim Arwood, Communications Director, Arizona Solar Center

Arizona Solar Center Blog

For several months Arizona media outlets have repeated a certain inaccurate “statement of fact” about solar homeowners so many times that most people by now believe it to be true. Anti-solar TV ads from out-of-state non-profit organizations have made the same claim: Arizona solar customers are primarily wealthy and live in affluent neighborhoods.

This ubiquitous narrative underpins the utility’s argument on net-metering, and it constitutes a not-so-subtle attempt to drive a wedge between solar and non-solar utility customers. Historically, both groups have overwhelmingly supported solar policies.

But why have the media bought into this wealth fallacy and repeated it with such regularity? Have the media become so lazy that reporting spoon-fed manufactured facts nowadays passes for reporting?

I bring this up because last week the Center for American Progress issued a report titled “Solar Power to the People: The Rise of Rooftop Solar Among the Middle Class.” According to the report, the residential rooftop solar revolution is making substantial inroads across the country. Citing research from the Solar Energy Industries Association, the report’s author, Mari Hernandez, states that since 2000, more than 1,460 megawatts of rooftop solar have been installed, and more than 80 percent of that capacity was added in the past four years.

Hernandez follows up those facts with an important question the media and others have failed to ask: Who is buying all those solar power systems?

And then Hernandez and her team answered the question. They conducted an analysis of solar installation data from Arizona, California and New Jersey. Lo and behold, the numbers showed that these installations are overwhelmingly occurring in middle-class neighborhoods.

To cite their report: “The areas that experienced the most growth from 2011 to 2012 had median incomes ranging from $40,000 to $50,000 in both Arizona and California and $30,000 to $40,000 in New Jersey.

“Additionally, the distribution of solar installations in these states aligns closely with the population distribution across income levels.”

In other words, the average rooftop solar homeowner is you and me. We are solar.

Hernandez got her figures from utility databases. In Arizona, she looked at APS data on installations made under the solar rebate program, and compared that information with household incomes by ZIP Code.

The APS data indicated that 80 percent of installations were in ZIP codes with a median household income ranging from $40,000 to $90,000. Further, most installations in Arizona were in neighborhoods with median incomes of $40,000 to $50,000.

The analysis contradicts the claim that Arizona solar policy favors wealthy homeowners, as the percentage of installations in neighborhoods with median incomes exceeding $90,000 has steadily declined in each of the past four years.

However, media reports in Arizona continue to repeat the utility mantra that wealthy homeowners are adopting rooftop solar in disproportionate numbers, and as a result utility customers who can’t afford to go solar are subsidizing the rich through the net-metering policy.

In Arizona, utilities must purchase excess power produced from private rooftop solar producers. The research suggests that APS’s attempt to change the rules and charge rooftop solar power producers more for use of transmission lines – while slashing the rate they pay for the actual power produced — will have precisely the opposite effect touted in those dishonest ads.

If these rule changes are approved, lower- and middle-class customers will feel the pinch much more than wealthy people.


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November 2013