How Energy Efficient are California Solar Adopters?

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For customers who go solar, adding energy efficiency upgrades should go hand in hand. Solar companies are starting to realize that customers who choose to add energy efficiency upgrades do not hurt their business. Brightergy is even now offering financing for energy efficiency projects, thus turning potential competition into an addition to their business.

The California Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE) has been studying the energy efficiency actions of California homeowners who installed rooftop solar electric systems, providing insights into the connection between solar adoption and energy upgrades. Ultimately, CSE hopes this information will assist with the design of future residential energy programs.

According to CSE, data from San Diego-area residents who participated in the California Solar Initiative rebate program show that future solar adopters may be an ideal market segment for making more comprehensive energy upgrades. Understanding the relationship between solar adoption and energy efficiency measures is critical given California’s efforts to expand the residential energy efficiency market, and its aggressive plans that call for reducing energy consumption in existing residential buildings 40% by 2020.

CSE researchers surveyed 2,350 solar homeowners in the San Diego Gas & Electric service territory to understand the various factors motivating their investment in a PV system, and to assess their perspectives on energy efficiency. While the majority of respondents indicated that saving money on electricity costs was the most important reason for going solar (74%) and for making any energy efficiency upgrades (71%), nuances in motivations across demographic groups reveal some distinct differences that shed light on differing energy views.

The survey found that 87% of survey participants had engaged in energy efficiency, the majority only taking basic actions prior to solar installation, such as installing low-energy lighting and appliances. While it is good that steps were taken, homeowners would benefit from doing more, since solar becomes increasingly effective with increased energy efficiency. Essentially, many homeowners could be benefiting more from their solar system than they actually are.

Following the market segmentation descriptions developed by Opinion Dynamics Corp. for the California Public Utilities Commission, a portion of the survey group was divided into “leading achievers” and “practical spenders,” based on household income, education, and other demographics.

According to Ria Langheim, a CSE research analyst, the results confirmed that leading achievers were more motivated to install solar because of environmental concerns and the desire to reduce reliance on fossil-fueled energy. Practical spenders, on the other hand, perceived solar as more of a significant investment that increased their property value.

Langheim said that practical spenders link energy efficiency to home maintenance as an ongoing process, with the added benefits of comfortable indoor temperatures and improved air quality. Among the leading achievers, there was more motivation for energy efficiency in relation to being green in general and reducing their carbon footprint. They also were more likely to see energy efficiency upgrades as a prerequisite to solar to reduce consumption and minimize PV system size.

The data indicate that solar customers appear to understand that deeper energy efficiency upgrades offer more than just cost savings. Other factors related to home comfort, health, and safety can provide the opportunity to engage these customers in taking additional energy measures. According to Langheim, the implications of this are potentially large, considering the savings missed when energy efficiency is not addressed comprehensively before installing solar.

“Consideration should be given to integrating solar into energy efficiency programs and framing solar as a component of a comprehensive home energy upgrade,” Langheim said. “This may help future solar customers to explore the full range of energy efficiency options as well as encourage contractors to offer both energy efficiency and solar installation services.”