How do we accelerate rooftop solar?

Installing rooftop solar panels is one of the most impactful steps an individual can take to combat climate change. Understanding the motivations behind adopting these behaviors and the barriers that prevent some is crucial for designing effective behavior change and marketing campaigns. In July 2023, we conducted eight hour-long qualitative interviews with rooftop solar adopters and those who considered the option but ultimately decided against it. In this post, we share insights from our discussions and behavioral recommendations.
  • Anam Tariq
  • Rakhim Rakhimov
  • Travis Niles
March 19, 2024
rooftop solar on a home.
Solar panels on a house in a suburban Colorado neighborhood. Photo Credit: Jason Houston for Rare

Why do people consider rooftop solar?

Self-sufficiency: Surprisingly, self-sufficiency, especially independence from the grid, emerged as a primary motivation for some respondents. Personal experiences with power outages, grid emergencies, and stories from friends and family motivated these individuals. Teleyna Wong, from Alaska, shared her perspective: “The topmost reason to consider rooftop solar is probably resiliency. Having a backup system.”

Predictable payments and long-term savings: Many individuals are motivated to explore and install rooftop solar to secure long-term savings and maintain predictable monthly energy payments in the face of ever-increasing electricity prices. LaShawn Taylor, a solar adopter from New Jersey, explained:

“The electric bill was my responsibility in the house. It fluctuated, and it fluctuated a lot depending on the time of the year. So, I stressed to my husband that I really wanted to look into some type of option to have more consistent payments.” Another Pennsylvania solar customer, Brady Bowlin, said, “Hey look, sure, it might be whatever to start it up, but you never have to worry [again] about your electric going from 8 cents to 16 cents.”

Broadly similar to our findings, Pew Research Center polling of homeowners in 2022 revealed the importance of saving money on electrical bills and getting the tax credit as key motivations for people who installed or have seriously considered installing solar panels. This poll, however, misses self-sufficiency as a motivation, which was the primary reason among our respondents.

Environmental concerns: While not the primary motivation, some respondents mentioned a desire to mitigate climate change by producing renewable energy. For example, Dekel Iftach from Texas stated, “I’m all for green energy, and I really want it to happen. I can try to do my part.”

What prevents people from getting rooftop solar?

Desire for self-guided decisions: Instead of having solar solutions sold to them, individuals contemplating solar power are increasingly inclined to lead the decision-making process themselves. They seek autonomy by conducting online research and favor a straightforward, uncomplicated path to solar integration.

A noteworthy finding from our study is that most respondents were reluctant to engage with solar salespeople. Some even aspire to remove sales pitches entirely from the equation. This aversion stems from several key factors, such as aggressive sales tactics, a need for more transparency in presenting cost-benefit analyses, and a noticeable deficiency in product knowledge among sales representatives.

Dekel Iftach shared his frustration experienced by many: “Throughout the presentation [solar sales pitch], I got irritated and just annoyed because, you know, I’m not an engineer, but like the salespeople, they didn’t know anything about the product itself, its technical specs.” (Non-Adopter, Texas)

On the other hand, a notable contrast is observed in Tesla’s sales approach, as articulated by Danner, a solar adopter from Utah. Tesla’s method simplifies the process by allowing customers to initially specify their desired power generation without delving into technical complexities. Danner remarked, “I admire how Tesla sells even their panels because they eventually do get to a place where they probably give you an aerial image of the roof, but when you first go through their little wizard, all you get to say is how much power you want to generate. That’s it. And then they’ll say, well, based on how much power you want to generate, we think it’s gonna cost x. They make it very, very simple, where you don’t have to think about it. And I’m flabbergasted that most companies don’t approach the sale that way.”

Aversion to the complexity and lack of transparency: Interviewees expressed a need for more transparency and honesty in their interactions with solar installers or salespeople, particularly regarding system sizing and payback period estimates. Some feel that the solar industry is still evolving, and many unknowns about their practices exist. As Taleyna Wong from Alaska pointed out: “It’s still a lot of murkiness. I think they [solar installer] said things kind of verbally. I didn’t get a great explainer, and I have yet to see a great website that shows you the whole process.”

People who ended up installing solar wished for less complexity in the process, in particular when it pertains to net-metering or the sale of solar renewable energy certificates: “In California, the net metering system is very confusing for people to understand and even I get mixed explanations about how it works.” (Andy Lee, Solar adopter, California). Lashawn Taylor from New Jersey shared, “In the process of applying for the state renewable energy credit, I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve called a number of people trying to get information just for this one piece of information that I needed that it took me forever to get.”

Lack of trustworthy information and reviews: Respondents mentioned a need for more online information that could address their concerns about solar, given the relative newness of the industry. At the same time, online research was often a starting point for people to get information about solar; most sought out people in their community or network with direct solar experience. As a result, the testimonies from friends carried significant weight in people’s decision-making. However, respondents often felt they didn’t know enough people who had solar and could answer their questions.

When asked what information sources he would trust about solar panels, Dekel responded: “Colleague or a family member. I mean, obviously, the best one would be a neighbor because they’re in the same location as me, and they understand the same issues that I have that would obviously be the best.” (Solar Non-Adopter, Texas)

Some pointed out that solar-related information vetted by the state would also be trustworthy, but they had yet to come across any such resources.  Dekel continued: “I would even say, if the city itself that I live in had some vetted solar providers or the city promoted them in some way, then I’ll be like: Ok, at least they pass through some type of vetting process.” (Solar non-adopter, Texas)

The value of having state/government vetted sources was also brought up by LaShawn: “I would trust the information if it were on the state website because with state and federal governments, they have more responsibility, and you can feel like the information that they’re giving is more accurate.”

Home improvement priorities – solar panels vs. other upgrades: Homeowners typically consider solar energy projects when they have extra funds available for spending. However, in many cases, solar panels are not the top choice. A common sentiment among our respondents is that solar installations are not their primary preference when they have savings earmarked for home upgrades.

The main factor driving this decision is the prevailing belief that solar panels might not significantly increase their property’s overall value. Instead, homeowners tend to regard other home improvements, such as kitchen or bathroom upgrades, as more attractive and promising investments. Interestingly, this preference holds even for those who plan to reside in their homes indefinitely.

For many homeowners, the paramount consideration remains the potential of these alternative home improvement projects to enhance their property’s resale value.


Behavioral recommendations

Behavioral science offers strategies to bolster motivation for rooftop solar adoption while simultaneously addressing adoption barriers. Here are five potential approaches:

  • Highlight uncertainty. Leverage people’s dislike of ambiguity and uncertainty by drawing attention to volatility and rising electricity prices, positioning solar panels as a more stable and predictable choice for monthly electric bills.
  • Use loss aversion to your advantage. The upfront costs of solar panels remain high, with an average array size costing $15,000 – $20,000. People feel the pain of losing money more acutely than the pleasure of gaining it. To counter this bias, consider leveraging ‘loss aversion’ by framing the cost of not switching to solar as a continuous loss. For example, “Every day without solar, you’re losing $X on your energy bill.”
  • Leverage social influence. Showcase testimonials from people like the target audience who have made the switch and benefited financially. Knowing that peers or neighbors are adopting solar and saving money can be social proof.
  • Choose emotionally appealing framing. When designing campaigns to drive solar adoption, target campaigns to cities and states that experience power outages and use language highlighting solar’s resiliency and grid independence.
  • To reduce the cost of selling solar, help people buy it. To increase solar adoption, make the process easy and consumer-driven. Solar is complicated, so solar companies should rise to the challenge to smooth out their processes and create as much process padding as possible for regulatory issues such as interconnection delays. Our research suggests consumers want to discover solar, experiment, tinker, and see for themselves. A great example of this is the Tesla solar site. Consumers actively disdain the solar sales process and are likely to feel much more invested after exploring their options and feeling a sense of ownership around the process. Creating the infrastructure to meet consumer curiosity and shopping preferences will ultimately lead to more qualified solar customers (and more interest in the category overall!). To achieve this, listening to your customers, studying their needs, interests, and preferences, and budgeting for process changes is crucial.