Solar panels: Not just for rich home owners anymore

July 7, 2015, 3:08 PM UTC

The White House is expected to announce new programs on Tuesday that will bring more solar panels to low income communities and renters, reports the New York Times. The move shows how solar panels are increasingly moving beyond the industry’s initial niche market of wealthy home owners in sunny states in the U.S.

Obama administration officials are supposed to make the announcement in Baltimore later today. The details will likely include a plan to triple the capacity of solar panels for federally subsidized housing by 2020, and a pledge of $520 million — from the private sector as well as states and cities — to install solar panels and energy-efficiency projects in low income communities.

While the U.S. federal government is trying to help move solar into more diverse neighborhoods, the solar industry is looking to do the same thing. Community solar projects — where neighborhoods buy solar energy from a shared system — have become increasingly popular.

Alternative Energy And Jobs
SolarCity workers install solar electrical panels on the roof of a home in Palo Alto, Calif. in 2011.Photograph by Tony Avelar — Christian Science Monitor Christian Science Monitor—Getty Images
Photograph by Tony Avelar — Christian Science Monitor Christian Science Monitor—Getty Images

Weeks ago solar panel installer SolarCity announced a new community program for renters, schools and communities in Minnesota. Community solar projects are usually built on a plot of land nearby a community, and the power is sold to the group through monthly bills.

Traditionally, it’s been difficult to get solar energy to many homes in the U.S. The early market was only available to the wealthy who could afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars upfront for expensive solar systems. Those early customers also most likely had to own their own home and live in a sunny state that provided adequate subsidies.

But as the solar market has matured, and solar panels have plummeted in price, new business models have enabled customers to buy solar power for no, or little, money down. A company like SolarCity pays for the cost to install the solar panels and then sells the customers solar energy every month, which is usually cheaper than the customers previous utility bill.

Cheap solar panels have meant even more creative new business models. These new community solar projects can give a neighborhood access to solar that don’t own their own homes or don’t have roofs that are solar-friendly.

Renters have long been left out of the solar industry. But renters in big cities who are concerned about environmental issues, are early tech adopters and have considerable disposable income, could be an important new market for the solar sector.

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