Study: California’s rooftop solar incentives drive installations for working-class families

SAN FRANCISCO – Incentives provided by states like California to low-income and working-class families help drive adoption of residential rooftop solar, according to a new study.

The conclusion, from the study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, also called Berkeley Lab, bolsters calls by the Environmental Working Group and other advocates to leave California’s residential solar power incentives in place. Utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric are trying to win approval of a plan that would discourage solar in the state.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy, analyzed years of data from both the California Single-Family Affordable Solar Homes and Connecticut Solar for All programs. The report finds:

  • Phasing out incentives may reduce benefits for low-income solar adopters.
  • Adoption of solar by low-income households still depends on incentives.
  • Targeted incentives can play a key role in enabling low-income solar adoption.

About four in five recipients of incentives from California and Connecticut would not have adopted solar if the subsidies hadn’t existed, according to the study.  

“This study further underscores the enormous financial and environmental value of incentivizing rooftop solar for working-class families in California,” said EWG President and Bay Area resident Ken Cook.

“It is clear that rooftop solar has become much more mainstream, accessible and desired across a wide band of family income levels,” he said. “California and every other state should make solar more affordable for all households, because this clean energy source is vital for fighting the climate crisis.”

Cook added, “The current proposal by the California Public Utilities Commission would destroy the state’s rooftop solar economy at the behest of power companies like PG&E, whose monopoly control is threatened by consumer-owned power.”

Protect Solar Energy in California!

The study found spikes in rooftop solar adoption in communities made up of mostly low- and moderate-income households after they learned about and received the subsidies. There’s typically an initial spike in demand for solar in these homes, followed by a slight dip, before another uptick. That second increase is likely due to public outreach by the state or by solar installers, and by subsidy recipients encouraging neighbors to take part.

In California, there are now rooftop solar panels on more than 1.3 million homes, small businesses and other structures, because of the state’s rooftop solar program incentives. Put in place in 2006, they made it affordable for working- and middle-class communities.

But millions of California residents, including low-income and working-class families, could soon no longer be able to afford to install solar panels, if the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC, sides with PG&E and the other two monopoly investor-owned electric utilities in the state that are seeking to quash the popular program.

“Allowing the CPUC and PG&E to pull the plug on the popular and successful program would put rooftop solar out of reach for millions of residents, kill tens of thousands of jobs and impede the state’s progress combating the climate crisis,” said EWG’s Cook.

The utilities consider residential rooftop solar their only source of competition in California. They are pressuring regulators to adopt their plot to eliminate incentives and replace them with a steep solar tax of around $50 per month on residents who install rooftop solar. The plan would drastically reduce the payments these households could receive for solar generation, essentially putting the energy source out of their reach.

“Competition is the equivalent to kryptonite for monopoly utilities like PG&E,” said Cook. “Getting more residents and small business owners to take advantage of the state’s solar program will diminish the power companies’ control over their captive ratepayers.”

The CPUC was poised to move forward with adopting the proposal earlier this year but has delayed a final decision. The reason for the delay remains unclear, but it’s believed the huge public outcry over the proposal played a significant role.

During a lengthy interview with the Los Angeles Times' Sammy Roth, published on March 17, newly installed CPUC president Alice Reynolds was asked why she had “shelved” the proposal shortly after assuming the top job at the commission.

Reynolds responded, “I wouldn’t call it shelved, necessarily. I would just say we’re taking some time to look at it and consider it really carefully, and consider all of the comments in the record.”


The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy, and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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