U.S. solar industry shifting towards consumers by Katie Fehrenbacher @FortuneMagazine June 9, 2015, 10:16 AM EDT E-mail Tweet Facebook Google Plus Linkedin Share icons More solar panels were installed on U.S. home rooftops in the first quarter of this year than ever before, according to a new report out from the Solar Energy Industry Association and GTM Research. Most growth in the solar technology industry over the past few years has been driven by solar panel farms that sell electricity to utilities, but the growing popularity of home solar panels illustrates an emerging shift in the solar sector as it turns towards consumers. The sheer number of homeowners who are now opting for solar panels over other energy sources is growing. A significant 437 megawatts of solar panels were installed in the first quarter, which was a 76 percent increase from the first quarter of 2014, said the report. If that doesn’t wow you, what about this: There were more residential solar panels installed in the first quarter of this year than natural gas power plants. The steady uptick in home solar panel purchases has been helped by companies like SolarCity that offer customers deals on solar panel installation. Here’s how it works: The company installs panels on roofs for little or no money down, and sells the solar energy generated from those panels to the consumer for the next 15 or 20 years. Often times with these type of deals, a customer will end up paying a lower rate for energy per month than local utilities charge. The solar market shift towards consumers is one of the major energy trends that analysts have been predicting for awhile. It’s important, partly, because it could represent a new era where consumers take a more active interest in managing and personalizing their energy consumption. A SolarCity employee carries a solar panel being installed on the roof of a home in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, Calif. in May 2014.Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg—Getty Images This type of consumer engagement could help open up markets for more energy-related goods, like home energy management systems, electric and hybrid cars, energy efficient lighting and home batteries. It could also help consumers become more energy conscious, which could lead to lower energy use, and lower per person carbon emissions. Well, that’s the theory, at least. But, home panels isn’t the only growing solar trend, it’s spreading everywhere. Overall there was over a gigawatt of solar panels installed in the U.S., for all types of uses, including for utilities, homes and businesses. Solar actually accounted for 51 percent of all new electric generation capacity brought online in the quarter, says the report. Solar panels installed in large farms that sell electricity to utilities is still currently the biggest part of the solar market. Close to 650 megawatts — or about half of the solar capacity brought online in the quarter — was for utilities. While growth in the U.S. solar industry is clearly large, it’s really just getting started. The report says 3 million new home rooftop solar installations could be installed over the next five years. By the end of this year, there could be 7.9 gigawatts of solar panels collectively operating in the U.S. For comparison’s sake one gigawatt is the equivalent of a large coal or natural gas plant. Another important trend to watch in the U.S. solar sector is a shift away from its reliance on subsidies as it becomes more mainstream. As I reported yesterday, a flood of utility solar panel projects have emerged that are trying to beat the deadline of a looming federal subsidy. The report says that close to a quarter of the home rooftop solar installations have been installed in states without incentives.