Though solar panels have been on the market since 1956, the earliest models definitely weren't saving anyone any money.
Quite the contrary. They were initially so inefficient and expensive that you could expect to pay around $300 per watt of installed solar power— putting the price tag of a small 5 kW solar system at a jaw-dropping 1.5 million dollars.
By 1975 the cost had dropped to $100 per watt, with prices continuing to fall around 10% each year since.
But when you're dealing with something that starts out very expensive, even a long and steady drop in price won't necessarily be enough to make it inexpensive.
So, despite over a half-century of rapidly declining costs, the demographic profile of your typical solar-equipped homeowner remained pretty constant.
Basically, when you saw solar panels going up on the roof of some home, it was a safe bet that it belonged to someone with both heightened environmental awareness and some very deep pockets.
Or that was true until recently, at any rate.
According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) esteemed Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, declining solar-panel prices reached a tipping point around 10 years ago. That's when solar power stopped being a niche novelty item for wealthy environmentalists.
About the study
The DOE report is called “Residential Solar-Adopter Income and Demographic Trends.”
The data comes from surveying 2.8 million residential rooftop solar energy systems installed in 2021. That means the survey encompassed around half of the 5.5 million U.S. homes currently equipped with solar.
In sharp contrast to the way things have been for most of the industry's history:
- Over one-third of homes that installed solar power in 2021 were middle-income with an additional 15% being low-income.
Nor is solar power just for the college-educated anymore:
While 43% of new solar adopters had a bachelor’s degree or higher, 33% attended only some college and almost a quarter hadn't attended at all.
In 2010 only 11% of solar-equipped homes were blue-collar. Today, that number has once again almost doubled, with blue-collar solar-equipped homes climbing to 19% by the end of 2021.
Power for the people
The reason solar power has expanded beyond its initial demographic of wealthy environmentalists is pretty simple.
Steadily declining costs together with increased efficiency and government incentives completely changed the bottom line.
Nowadays, ordinary middle and low-income Americans are discovering that they can finance going solar at cheaper monthly payments than their currently shelling out for electricity.
That translates into immediate monthly savings—something everyone can get behind.