Yale-Led Project to Widen Access to Household Solar Receives Federal Grant

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

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Over the past three years a Yale-led project supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) yielded key insights into the kinds of incentives that will make solar more competitive in the household energy market and the valuable role of peer groups in influencing wider adoption.
A new $1.35 million grant from DOE will extend the project, allowing partner organizations to explore how to further broaden the appeal of solar power to a mass market — including low- and moderate-income households.
Led by Kenneth Gillingham, assistant professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), the program will specifically examine the potential value of adding solar power in places where the power grid faces the greatest challenges to accommodating demand and strategies to make solar a more accessible option for lower income communities.
The project is funded by the DOE’s Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Studies (SEEDS) program. The Yale-led SEEDS-2 project will involve several partners, including: the Yale Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY); SmartPower, a social marketing firm; the Connecticut Green Bank; Duke University; and MySunBuddy, an online marketplace that connects solar owners with solar buyers.
The question is, how do you reach and provide opportunities to those low- and moderate-income households?
— Kenneth Gillingham, Assistant Professor, Yale F&ES
“During the first phase of this project we saw huge increases in solar and gleaned insights into how to increase competition and design strategies that are more cost-efficient for encouraging the uptake of solar,” Gillingham said. “But we had some questions at the end, including how we can optimize where we locate solar to achieve its highest value.
“Another one of our findings was that while it’s not always the wealthiest people who choose solar, it’s also very rare that people in the lower income bracket do,” he added. “So the question is, how do you reach and provide opportunities to those low- and moderate-income households?”
In the original Yale-led SEEDS project, partners promoted and evaluated the uptake of residential photovoltaic (PV) solar installations across the state of Connecticut using a mechanism known as “Solarize,” a community-based program that leverages social interaction — including through existing entities like civic organizations and religious communities — and group pricing to promote solar adoption.
In the second phase, partner organizers will again utilize the Solarize model in New York, South Carolina, and Connecticut. During a series of 16- to 20-week campaigns, SmartPower will work with solar “ambassadors,” local groups, and installers to create awareness of household solar power and encourage new projects.
In addition, the project will work with MySunBuddy, a startup co-founded by Kathyrn Wright ’13 M.E.M., to test and evaluate innovative new peer-to-peer strategies for solar power, which have the potential to put them within reach for underserved communities and neighborhoods.
Throughout the project, students with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment will conduct interviews with the solar ambassadors, installers, and customers, collecting important data about mechanisms that work well and areas where there are barriers to adoption.
“I am excited to be part of a project that not only brings new knowledge on how innovative programs can make technologies for a low carbon future available to a larger part of the population, but also shows where solar PV can bring the highest value to the electricity grid,” said Helle Gronli, an associate research scientist with CBEY.
If Coca-Cola had remained only an elixir that was sold in pharmacies, we wouldn't be talking about it today.
— Kenneth Gillingham, Assistant Professor, Yale F&ES
Achieving that growth will require direct engagement at the community level, said Brian Keane, president and CEO of SmartPower. Many successful consumer products, from Coca-Cola to Tupperware, experienced early growth by leveraging social networks at the community and neighborhood level, he said. And that’s what they’re trying to achieve with initiatives such as the “Solarize” model.
“We work on the ground, connecting people, peer-to-peer and friend-to-friend, to talk about solar power. Because one is more likely to buy solar power from someone they know and trust — and who also buys solar power,” he said.
"Think about it in terms of other consumer products: If Coca-Cola had remained only an elixir that was sold in pharmacies, we wouldn't be talking about it today. But they figured out how to broaden its appeal to a mass market. And that's exactly what we're trying to do with SEEDS. How can we bring solar to a mass market?"
Federal funding for the SEEDS program comes from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy SunShot Initiative, a collaborative national effort that drives innovation to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. Through SunShot, the Energy Department supports efforts by private companies, universities, and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour.
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842