What Do “The Masses” Think About the Future of Solar?


By Matthew Wheeland
This article originally appeared on SolarEnergy.net, and is reprinted with permission.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Solar is a big deal. The good news comes in all forms — particularly hard data, the most recent of which is news from the Solar Energy Industries Association(SEIA) that, as of October 2014, more than 1 gigawatt of solar energy was installed for the fourth quarter in a row — bringing the total solar capacity of the United States up to 16.1 gigawatts.

The frenzy behind solar slightly obscures the fact that there is still a long way to go to powering the country, much less the world, with solar. Solar photovoltaics plus concentrated solar farms together equal just barely over one-half of 1 percent of the country’s total energy capacity: .54 percent, to be precise.

So it’s not entirely surprising to see the relatively ho-hum nature of the results of a new Harris Poll tracking how Americans view solar energy for the near-term and longer-term future.

Harris Poll surveyed 2,205 adults in the United States between October 15 and 20, 2014, and just released the findings: According to the responses, 31 percent of Americans believe solar will make “a major contribution to meeting our energy needs” within the next two to five years; another 53 percent said they believe it will make a minor contribution, and a disgruntled 16 percent said it will make almost no contribution at all.

Given the current size of the U.S. solar market, even that 53 percent in the middle seems pretty optimistic. But, considering the incredible growth in solar in even the past four years — see the chart from the SEIA below — five years isn’t too soon to see solar making a big splash:

solar stats

The Harris Poll data gets more interesting, though. They asked respondents the same question but looking out 15-20 years, and found the opposite story: Fifty-seven percent of respondents expect solar to make a big contribution, 35 percent said minor contribution, and only 8 percent said it will make hardly any contribution at all.

The last time Harris conducted this kind of survey, the trend lines were pretty much the same — a slightly smaller number were optimistic about the near future, and a slightly larger number were optimistic about the more-distant future. So the pace of Americans’ perception of solar is not keeping up with the pace of solar’s growth, which is great news, since it belies the hype-cycle mentality that can feed into these huge market booms.

Solar across the political spectrum

Support for solar power crosses all political ideologies, as the success of TUSK and other conservative solar supporters — as well as the growth of solar in red states — easily proves. But respondents to the Harris Poll survey hewed a bit more closely to traditional / stereotypical lines:

  • Democrats are more likely than Independents, and both are more likely than Republicans, to believe solar energy will make a major contribution in the next 2-5 years (39% vs. 29% vs. 22%, respectively).
  • This also holds true for feelings around contributions over the next 15-20 years with 69% of Democrats confident it will make a major contribution vs. 56% of Independents and 44% of Republicans.
  • Majorities across the political gamut acknowledge that we now have the technological know-how, though Democrats are still the most confident (73% vs. 61% Independents & 56% Republicans).

Another big chunk of good news comes from the responses to a question Harris posed about whether people of different age groups were more willing to buy a solar product. Whether you’re talking about a solar charger for your devices, rooftop solar panels for your home, a solar water heating unit or a solar home-heating unit, younger people are more likely to make a solar purchase than the next-older generation. Millennials were far and away most likely to go solar, and “Matures” (born before the Baby Boomers) were least.

Simply put, that underlines our often-repeated statement that the future is solar.

Here are the numbers from Harris:

  • Solar Charger : 38% Millennials vs. 28% Gen Xers, 25% Baby Boomers, & 19% Matures.
  • Solar System to Provide Electricity : 41% vs. 32%, 32%, & 21% respectively.
  • Solar Water Heating Unit : 31% vs. 23%, 22%, & 20% respectively.
  • Solar System to Heat Your Home : 36% vs. 26%, 25%, & 16% respectively.

And when Harris breaks those numbers out by political party, there’s an interesting — if not entirely surprising — development: Self-defined “Independent” voters are the most likely to consider purchasing each of those solar-powered items (except for a solar home-heating device, edged out by Democrats by 1 percent).

While support for solar is strong across political lines, clearly the idea of energy independence (not to mention cost-savings) appeals to Independents.

Here’s looking ahead to another great year for solar, and let’s hope we prove all those optimistic Harris Poll participants right!