Low- and middle-income households will soon be able to join the nation’s growing renewable energy movement, thanks to a new Yale-led collaboration that seeks to examine and expand the market for solar power.

Led by Kenneth Gillingham, a professor of economics at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, this collaboration stems from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Studies program, which funds efforts to make solar power a more cost-competitive source of energy. On Oct. 20, Gillingham’s team received $1.35 million from SEEDS to pursue a project that will use behavioral science as a springboard for developing new approaches to incentivizing solar adoption by households.

“One of our end goals is to provide a knowledge base for different stakeholders, whether they be policymakers, companies in the market, local governments, nonprofits or anyone else who is interested in the solar space and how to increase solar adoption,” Gillingham said.

In a previous SEEDS-funded study that ran from 2013–16, Gillingham partnered with Duke University researchers, the Connecticut Green Bank and nonprofit marketing firm SmartPower to investigate how social interactions can maximize the diffusion of solar technologies in Connecticut. The first SEEDS project revealed that community-based programs can make a significant impact on homeowners’ decisions to adopt solar power, Gillingham said.

According to Gillingham, the group will further investigate strategies for promoting greater solar adoption by taking a two-pronged approach: targeting low- and middle-income households, as well as areas in which solar installations can be the most effective in relieving electricity grid congestions. The current project team — SEEDS II — held its official kickoff meeting on Monday.

“What we realized is that even though we’ve had such incredible success [with SEEDS I], there’s still a large segment of the American people who are simply left behind on solar — predominantly low- and middle-income workers,” SmartPower President Brian Keane said. “Solar is not just for the wealthy — we maintain that [widespread implementation of solar power] is achievable, and what has to happen is messaging and on-the-ground outreach.”

This second phase will expand the scope of SEEDS I by exploring how homeowners in Connecticut, New York and South Carolina respond to outreach efforts associated with Solarize, a model that uses community leaders, “solar ambassadors” and incentives like group pricing to encourage solar adoption. The team hopes to make solar power more accessible by helping lower-income households bridge financing and information gaps, according to Lucas Johnson FES ’18 SOM ’18, one of four students from the Yale Center for Business and the Environment hired to work on SEEDS II.

SEEDS II will also look into how utility companies can be incentivized to incorporate solar into their future programming, according to Sara Harari FES ’18 SOM ’18, another SEEDS II research assistant from CBEY. Solar power is currently an unattractive option for many utility companies due to the dispersed nature of solar panels, so one project goal will be to help utility companies better understand the benefits of incorporating solar power into the grid, Harari said.

In addition to the previous partner organizations, the new SEEDS II team will include researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel, who will develop agent-based models for the project, as well as MySunBuddy, a peer-to-peer solar sharing platform that will work with SmartPower to connect solar owners and buyers.

“I think the SEEDS II project will help answer important questions about how to ensure the renewable energy transition is equitable and directly benefits everyone,” said Kathryn Wright FES ’13, one of MySunBuddy’s co-founders. “It will also contribute to discussions around the value of distributed solar to the grid and how to most impactfully deploy solar. I’m looking forward to how our findings can assist utilities and the solar industry adapt to growing demand for renewables.”

The $1.35 million SEEDS grant will fund another three-year project. According to Gillingham, the first year will consist of conducting randomized field experiments that will focus on strategies for reaching low- and middle-income populations. The second year will target the second mission of the project: using electricity grid data to promote solar in areas of high value to the grid and to society. In the final year, the team will compile their findings into a guidebook on best practices for supporting solar adoption.

Gillingham added that solar is a particularly interesting type of renewable energy because the decisions pertaining to solar power are largely made by individuals, not companies. Solar is becoming a viable technology to more and more consumers, he said, which will lead to a more dynamic market and homeowner decision process.

“I think we are at a very exciting time in the evolution of energy and electricity resources in the United States and around the world,” SEEDS II research assistant Nate Kaufman FES ’17 said. “There’s clearly a long way that we need to go in order to make the shift to cleaner energy, and I think this project is an example of an innovative way of trying to figure out how we can expedite the revolution.”

The SEEDS program belongs to the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, which aims to make solar power cost-competitive with other forms of electricity by 2020.

  • Michael ONeal

    I hope the funding is fully committed and locked down. Priorities may be changing.