Nearly a year ago, at the U.S. Solar Market Insight Conference, Shayle Kann of GTM Research made the case that solar was well on its way to becoming mainstream.

At this year’s Solar Power International, he turned the question of whether solar is mainstream over to a panel representing a range of sectors in residential solar.

When is solar mainstream?

Kann began by asking, What would it mean for solar to hit mainstream?

Paul Nahi of Enphase emphasized that a number alone won’t be the indicator. What will? When solar achieves the same level of complexity, is thought of with the same amount of energy (pun intended?), and is as easy to install as any other appliance. When that happens, he said, the 20 million roofs will come in.

Numbers may not tell the whole story, but they are illustrative. David Kaiserman of Suntreet Energy Group (formerly with Lennar, a major homebuilder) noted that with the millions of households we have in the U.S., the opportunity is huge. How large can solar grow? If homebuilders just kept up with household formation, he said, we’d be talking between 1.6 – 1.8 million homes a year.

Cory Byzewski of Direct Energy was “in vehement agreement” with Nahi and Kaiserman. It all starts with consumers, he said.

Solar will be mainstream, Byzewski said, “when we’re not talking about what solar is and why they should get it, but why should they should buy from us and not from the other guys.”

Billy Parish of Mosaic added that participation and access are key. Energy, he said, is the largest industry on the planet, so shifting to 100% clean energy in the next 30 – 40 years is one of the greatest opportunities for wealth creation. He added, looking around at the audience, “This room looks different when solar is mainstream — it’s more representative of the country than it is now.”

How do we get to mainstream?

With these insights into what solar will look like when mainstream, Kann moved on to focus on what it will take to get us there.

From Nahi’s perspective, it’s about having the right technology that allows for ease of installation. While we may not get to homeowners installing their own panels, most don’t install their own appliances, either. But it needs to be simple. New financing options, tailored to each consumer’s needs, will also help make solar mainstream.

Simplicity is important, agreed Kaiserman. While he believes that now when you say solar, people know it saves money, the details bring a complexity that’s hampering its spread. One thing that can help is sticking with a standard retail rate for solar, which is easy for homeowners to understand. Bundled solutions, when done right, can also be powerful. When you build a home with everything included, he noted, you may lose flexibility but gain efficiency and profitability.

Of course, it’s not that simple to be simple. As Byzewski pointed out, it can take a lot of effort.

That’s something Mosaic is doing well, said Parish. Keeping the message simple — you can make money while doing something about climate change — and the platform simple lets people easily understand what the company’s investment products are. And it allows more people to participate however they can — even if they can’t put solar on their own roof.

The energy landscape of the future

Looking to the future, Kann asked the panelists to imagine that 20 – 30 years from now, solar has reached mainstream. What will be available to consumers?

“We will not not be looking at a solar solution,” said Nahi. “It will be an energy solution.”

That will include storage and load management, all tightly integrated into the grid. He added, “What you’re buying is a simple energy solution that lowers your bills while working seamlessly with the rest of the grid – done in such a way that you don’t know it’s happening.”

Kaiserman entertained the audience with his vision of how the lines will blur among solar, storage, home automation, and advanced building science. In this world, your kid comes home, the air conditioner goes to just the right temperature, and you get a text message with a photo of your kid doing his homework. While we have to agree with Kann — “I’m not sure I want to be your kid” — we also have to admit that this kind of world may not be far off.

Key in all this, as Byzewski noted, is the consumer perspective. We have to provide consumers more information about how they’re using their energy — in a much more detailed and immediate way than most of us get now from our monthly bills. He gave an example of a company in Texas that sent customers a text every day telling them how much electricity they used that day. The result? Customers dropped their energy usage by 18%.

Questions remain in these future scenarios. What type of work will people be doing when technology is doing more of the work? Does everyone have equal access to the new technologies? How do we get the word out to consumers?

Arriving at mainstream

As answers emerge to all these questions, solar adoption keeps increasing. The panelists all agreed that solar is on an upswing.

As Kaiserman pointed out, the fact that we’re at only about 450,000 solar homes now tells us that we’re just at the beginning. That echoed Nahi’s statement, “We’re still in the bottom of the first inning of solar.” Some solar industry veterans may not have appreciated that, but the point is not that solar is totally new. The point is that we’ve only scratched the surface, and we’re just now entering a phase when it will get really huge. We all know how much further solar can still go.

So, when will solar be mainstream? When we’re no longer asking that question at conferences. When we move on to other questions, we’ll know that solar has truly arrived.

Photo credit: Tanner Swenson