Ever since companies began developing solar power, in earnest, for residential and commercial uses in the 1990s, the general consensus has been the renewable energy source is something only rich people could afford.
But experts in the industry are now saying that perception, and reality, is slowly fading.
“It certainly gets cheaper every year,” said John Farrell, director of democratic energy at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for sustainable community development.
Farrell said the price for solar panels has decreased 80 percent over the last six years, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down.
“There’s still a lot of room to get cheaper,” he said.
For an average residential solar setup, the market-leading price is between $10,000 and $15,000, which does not include a 30 percent federal tax credit. Although every region has its own factors that affect cost, most people who install solar panels save up to $750 in utility bills a year.
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen significant cuts in residential prices,” said Joachim Seel, a senior research assistant at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. “And it’s expected to keep going down.”
Seel referenced the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative Mission, which seeks to make solar power, as well as other renewable energies, cost-competitive with traditional energy sources.
By 2020, the Department of Energy aims to reduce the cost of residential solar installment to an average of $7,500 per household unit.
But experts in the field agree there is much work to be done to hit that goal through technological advances, cutting government red tape and overall efficiency.
Farrell pointed to the renewable energy advances in Germany as the benchmark for which the U.S. can measure its solar infrastructure.
There, federal rules are lax and encourage the use of biofuels, and as recently as 2014, renewable energies accounted for 31 percent of the country’s total electrical consumption, with solar contributing 6.9 percent.
In the U.S., solar feeds 0.54 percent into the electric grid – the lowest amount of all the renewable sources.
And although prices in the U.S. are dropping, not everyone can shell out $10,000 for solar panel system.
Recognizing this roadblock, Farrell said solar companies about five years ago started a leasing program, which allows people with good credit to purchase panels and slowly pay them off over time.
“When it became available, it grew to be a monster given how popular it was,” Farrell said.
John Shaw, owner of the Durango-based Shaw Solar, said small electric companies in the area don’t offer solar leasing, mainly because La Plata Electric Association doesn’t offer rebates, making it financially unfeasible. LPEA does offer rebates to homeowners.
Still, he said his company installs about 60 solar units a year, with residential-use holding a slight majority over commercial.
“There’s a hundred years of inertia in utilities, whether it’s through burning coal or using hydroelectric,” Shaw said. “And now the utility companies are having to accept a different way. And they’re a bit resistant to it.
“We’re having more of an implementation problem versus a technology problem.”
However, there is a portion of the population that won’t be able to afford many types of renewable energies. That’s why Durango-based Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency (4CORE) wrote a grant seeking funds to offer low-income families the option of solar power, Executive Director Kurt Schneider said.
The project – awarded by the Environmental Justice Group, a division of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Ballantine Family Fund – will provide solar power to 61 residential homes at the Southwest Horizon Ranch, near the intersection of highways 160 and 172.
“We’re not able to do individual systems on rooftops because of the way that development was done,” Schneider said. “So we’re doing the next best thing, which is a ground mount to offset their electrical consumption.”
Schneider said that because Southwest Horizon Ranch is rental-based for low-income families, the units can’t be sold, as would be the case if the residences were privately owned.
“This will always be for the benefit of people who rent in that development,” he said.
And 4CORE marketing manager Teresa Shishim said that’s an important factor.
“Lower income people spend a higher percentage of their income on energy, so offsetting their energy costs is really helpful,” she said. “Costs for solar are coming down, but it’s still unreachable for low-income people.”
It’s too early to put a number figure on how much the project is expected to reduce utility bills, Shishim said, but organizers are predicting it will prevent 915 metric tons of carbon emissions over the next 25 years.
Dependent on grants and volunteers, 4CORE staff members hope the project template will catch on for similar initiatives throughout the region, in what they have called the Southwest Solar Barn Raising Project.
“Because of our elevation, clear skies and sunshine, we’re sitting on a very rich area for solar,” Schneider said. “Solar is not going anywhere in our community.”
Schneider said he hopes the project will be complete by fall 2016.