You don’t have to be interested in clean energy and climate change to have gotten hooked on the mesmerizing new podcast phenomenon S-Town — but it certainly adds another layer to the story. Without giving too much away, the show tells the story of John B. McLemore, an eccentric horologist in rural Alabama. He has a deeply conflicted relationship with his hometown for many reasons, but one of his most consuming frustrations is the local lack of awareness of climate change and the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels — for both environmental and economic reasons.
But in contrast to popular perceptions and John B’s experience, home solar is actually “red”-hot in some of the most politically conservative parts of the country.
Solar in the Red
In fact, while reviewing recent trends in residential solar, the annual Solar Market Insight report recently published by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and GTM Research singles out three states as “emerging state markets… [that] have begun to scale”: Utah, Texas, and South Carolina, each of which voted for president Trump by significant margins. While each state is only beginning to scratch the surface of its solar potential, they are all connecting powerfully with the clean energy movement sweeping the country at large.
Residential solar really took off in South Carolina in 2016, as a combination of incentives along with ample sunshine made it one of the fastest-growing markets in the country. According to Greentech Media, it went from 1 MW of residential solar installed in Q4 of 2015 to 9 MW installed in Q3 of 2016 — and the Charleston Post and Courier reported that permits for solar installations in the Lowcountry region went from 100 in 2015 to 1,400 in 2016!
As in most fast-growing residential solar states, net metering provides the foundation of solar’s value for homeowners, but South Carolina has further sweetened the pot with a personal renewable energy tax credit worth up to 25% of the costs of installations. State utilities are also stepping up, with rebates offered by both Duke Energy and Santee Cooper. It all adds up to a perfect storm for residential solar for the time being — although current net metering caps could be hit before the end of the year if they aren’t increased, which will be an important opportunity for the state’s solar supporters to make their voices heard.
Utah was the fastest-growing state for home solar west of the Mississippi in 2016, with annual rooftop solar installations more than doubling to 85 MW according to a report from Utah Clean Energy. This growth has been helped by a residential solar tax credit worth up to $2,000, which will stay in place through 2021 thanks to a recent legislative compromise. Not only that, but Utah’s net metering policy has a very generous cap of 20% of the state’s electricity demand, giving the market plenty of room to grow in the long term.
While the utility Rocky Mountain Power proposed several new fees for solar customers last year, the public outcry was so loud that RMP ended up withdrawing the proposal — a noteworthy demonstration of the power of the home solar constituency even in red states. Of course, the public spirit behind solar in Utah might not be a complete shock given that the state’s beloved Utah Jazz basketball team plays in the Vivint Smart Home Arena — sponsored by Vivint Solar, a Utah-based company that has gone on to become one of the largest installers in the country.
As anyone from Texas will proudly tell you, the Lone Star state is utterly unique — and its home solar market is no exception. Known primarily as the heart and soul of the U.S. oil and gas industry, Texas has lately been proving itself a formidable engine for renewables development as well, surpassing California to become the leading state for wind power. And, while it has been slower to tap into its equally-powerful sunshine, it began to scale its residential solar market in 2016 despite installing only a tiny fraction of its truly gargantuan potential.
This growth is due to some of the lowest prices for solar in the country as well as the unusual nature of the Texas home solar market. Unlike most states experiencing a solar boom, Texas has no statewide net metering policy. However, the state is home to a growing number of progressive municipally-owned utilities that are stepping in to fill the gap — including Austin Energy in the state capital, which offers a net metering-like value-of-solar tariff as well as home solar rebates, and San Antonio’s City Public Service (CPS), which similarly offers net metering as well as rebates. These programs have been so successful that both cities rank in the top 20 cities nationwide for solar installations!
Climate, Economics, or All of the Above?
So, what’s driving the solar boom in these (and other) conservative states? Is there a greater concern about climate change in these areas than S-Town might have you believe? Maybe. Among the many podcasters commenting on S-Town were Anna Jane Joyner and Mary Anne Hitt, the co-hosts of the Sierra Club’s great podcast on climate change, “No Place Like Home.” As climate activists hailing from Tennessee and Louisiana respectively, they could relate to the idea that there’s a lack of attention to climate and clean energy in the red states — but they also challenged it.
In their most recent episode, Anna Jane tells the story of stopping in a Louisiana bar on her way back from a conference for the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign — incidentally hosted in New Orleans, the 9th ranked city for home solar in the country. Inspired by the spirit of the conference, Anna Jane surveys patrons of the bar about their thoughts on climate change and finds, somewhat to her surprise, that people are more concerned than you might expect, and they’re eager to talk about it. They’re not alone — a recent Gallup poll on climate change shows that a record 62% of Americans believe that the effects of global warming are already evident, and 68% believe that pollution from fossil fuels is responsible.
While this climate awareness may be an important factor in many homeowners’ decisions, we think that the solar boom is also driven in red and blue states alike by the superior economics of clean energy compared to increasingly expensive fossil fuels — the other half of John B’s concern. As we wrote recently, the economic benefits of solar have led many red state mayors and governors to become advocates for ambitious clean energy policies. And, in a true sign of the times, the Kentucky Coal Museum itself is planning to install solar panels in order to save an expected $8,000-$10,000 per year on its electricity costs!
So next time you hear a podcast, a pundit, or a politician claiming that conservative parts of the country are as fossil fuel-obsessed as our president seems to be lately, keep these red-state solar success stories in mind — and trust that there’s much more to come.