Solar panels at sunset in a rural setting

Solar in the American Mind

A grant from the U.S. Department of Energy has YSE  Professor Ken Gillingham examining what influences the decisions Americans are making regarding solar energy and electric vehicles.

By Josh Anusewicz

The Biden administration's $1 trillion infrastructure law passed by Congress in November, which includes $7.5 billion to build out a national network of EV charges in U.S,  signals renewed optimism for battling the climate crisis in the U.S.  But stubborn facts persist: Americans still rely heavily on fossil fuels and nonrenewable energy. Only 727,000 electric vehicles were sold in 2019 according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, compared to 17 million light-duty vehicles using gasoline. According to projections from the Solar Energy Industries Association, just 2.5 percent of U.S. homes will have solar installations by 2024; even fewer will use battery energy storage, a cleaner alternative to fuel-powered generators.

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Ken Gillingham,  professor of environmental and energy economics at the YSE, is exploring why American energy consumers make certain decisions. It is the focus of his new research project, funded by a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) aimed at advancing solar technologies across the country. The DOE announced in November 2020 that it was investing $130 million in projects seeking to reduce the cost of solar, increase U.S. manufacturing competitiveness, and improve the reliability of the nation’s electric grid.

Gillingham recently discussed his upcoming research project and the patterns and trends he hopes to find by developing field experiments and surveying citizens.

There are several components to this project. Please walk us through the stages.

We’re going to start by using actual data from installations of solar and installations of energy storage across the country to understand the patterns and trends in the adoption of solar and storage. We’ll also examine some related effects: If you already use solar, are you more likely to adopt energy storage versus someone who hasn’t adopted solar?

Then we’ll do the same thing with electric vehicles, focusing on Connecticut, where we’ve already collected data: If someone buys an electric vehicle, are they more likely to adopt solar? And vice versa.

What do you hope to learn from this?

Understanding these patterns and trends of where renewable energy is being adopted is really important for policymakers as they consider who’s adopting now and what areas can be targeted to most likely lead to adoptions in the future. It will be useful for utility planners who need to know where the future demand for electricity will be. It will also be useful for renewable energy companies, giving insights on how to develop more targeted marketing based on the characteristics of potential consumers.

What are the fieldwork components of this project?

We’re focusing on energy storage and solar in Connecticut, a state that has shown positive growth in adopting solar energy and energy storage. Our weather here causes a lot of power outages, and solar and energy storage is a cleaner, more reliable alternative than fossil fuel-powered generators. We hope to run a set of campaigns to test theories using behavioral economics to understand what influences people to adopt solar energy and energy storage. What can we learn about consumer behavior, and when can we expect energy storage to begin to really take off?

We will also focus on solar adoption and energy efficiency in Alaska, a place where people have a strong sense of self-reliance but rely heavily on fossil fuels — both for their economy and their daily lives. Alaska is an especially interesting place to think about when studying energy efficiency and solar adoption.

What are the biggest obstacles for more widespread solar and electric vehicle adoption?

Some of it is just information — it takes time to have solar plus storage systems installed and for homeowners to understand how solar energy works. But cost is also a real factor; prices are coming down, but while the price of solar energy is becoming more reasonable, the combination of solar and energy storage is still quite expensive. States like Connecticut offer incentives, but is it economically attractive?

And with vehicles, the cost is high and the offerings are limited. There aren’t charging stations everywhere yet and people worry about being left high and dry — “range anxiety,” we call it. There are a lot of positive conversations going on within the government right now about incentives for renewable infrastructure and electric vehicles. There are many people who believe we’re headed in the right direction, regardless of government policy, but I think it’s going to take time without real government action.


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Canopy — Spring 2021

Fanning Out Across the Globe in Search of Big Cats, and other stories.