New Research Could Help Increase Diffusion Rate of Residential Solar

According to Dr Varun Rai, solar adopters who installed solar arrays most quickly typically looked to their community for informational support. (Photo credit: www.inhabitat.com)

According to Dr Varun Rai, solar adopters who installed solar arrays most quickly typically looked to their community for informational support. (Photo credit: http://www.inhabitat.com)

As the unmistakable signs of climate change become more apparent by the day, homeowners are putting an increasing amount of thought into their sources of power. One of the most popular alternatives to purchasing fossil fuel-based power is undoubtedly that of solar energy. In purchasing residential solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, however, there are barriers (mostly financial) that have kept the technology from diffusing as rapidly as some would like. While these financial barriers are well-studied, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin are now studying how certain barriers to trustworthy information affect the adoption of residential solar systems and how, if such information were accessed more easily, the process of adoption might become less daunting for consumers while accelerating diffusion.

The Energy Systems Transformation (EST) research group, led by Dr. Varun Rai, an assistant professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and Cockrell School of Engineering, notes in a paper titled “Effective Information Channels for Reducing Costs of Environmentally-Friendly Technologies: Evidence from Residential PV Markets”, which is co-authored by Scott Robinson, that solar PV adopters face particular “uncertainties and non-monetary costs” (UNMCs) that delay the installation of their systems. These UNMCs include information search costs, uncertainties about the future performance and required maintenance of the system, and perceptions of quality, sacrifice, and opportunity cost. By analyzing household-level data that compiled the survey responses of residents who have gone through the process of adopting solar PV systems, the group was able to gain valuable insight into how the delaying effect of UNMCs might be circumvented in the future via an improvement in the organization and exchange of credible information.

Credibility, as it turns out, was found to be a key characteristic of the kind of information that facilitated the decision-making process. This was apparent in the way that those adopters whose decision times were shorter were typically those that had access to trusted information networks, such as friends, family, and neighbors who had adopted solar PV systems. Through these networks, adopters were able to utilize the knowledge that their peers had gathered from experience – which, as the data suggests, was far more compelling than the information they could gather elsewhere. Moreover, those adopters that had simply observed solar PV systems on neighboring households were found to have shorter decision times, which further supports the idea that trusted information about the functionality of residential solar, even if collected passively, is very influential in the decision-making process. Ultimately, the research suggests that an increase in the exchange of information through trusted networks (in both passive and active forms) has the potential to decrease adopter decision times by about two-thirds, which is equal to roughly six months.

So, while information about the use and installation of residential solar systems is not difficult to find, at all – the internet is chock-full of it – the key, according to Dr. Rai, is that adopters obtain information that is from local or trusted sources; preferably a combination of both.

Ultimately, these findings could change the way that government and industry approach the development of residential solar power. Rai suggests that one useful approach might be the establishment of an online communication platform that harnesses the power of local information-sharing, which could provide tremendous benefits at a relatively low cost. Furthermore, they suggest such a platform could be a federally administered hub that aggregates regional installation information, which would be useful in serving as a “one-stop shop” of knowledge for potential solar adopters.

Regardless of the strategy that is ultimately implemented, however, the research is sure to contribute to the development of residential solar power generation. This is especially important, being that current adoption levels are nowhere near market potential.

Dr. Rai’s research paper and accompanying video abstract can be found here.

Written by Diego Atencio, Beyond Coal Intern

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