Are Solar Incentives a Subsidy for the Rich?

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by Tom Konrad

One of the most common arguments against incentives to help people buy solar panels for their homes are that they are a subsidy for the rich, paid for by everyone.  The argument goes: only the rich can buy a photovoltaic system, which, even with subsidies, costs thousands of dollars.  Why should everyone chip in to help rich people buy new toys?

On the face of it, this argument is persuasive.  Why should everyone pay, if only the rich get the benefit?  

Basic fairness dictates that society should only subsidize activities which create societal (rather than individual benefit.)  On closer reflection, however, we see that the bulk of the benefit for solar goes to society, rather than the homeowner-installer.

Let’s look at the benefits of a photovoltaic system (numbers are for a 4kW system, installed for $8 per peak watt, with the rebates currently available in to me in Colorado, plus the Federal tax credit.

The owner gets:

  1. Electricity for free (approximately 7,000 kWh/yr, worth $630 annually at current prices, but rising in value with inflation.  Production is subject to 1% per year annual degradation.)
  2. Cost of $12,000 after rebate and tax credit.
  3. An increase in property value, depending on the market.  I’ll assume 1/2 the net cost of the system (I’ve seen estimates as high as the full cost of the system (from solar installers) and as low as zero or even negative for unsightly installations.  So I’ll say this is worth about $6,000, but only if the home is sold.
  4. Maintenance costs, which I’ll assume to be 0.5% per year of the installation cost after the first year (at the very least the inverter needs to be replaced after 10-15 years, and the panels need to be kept clean.)
  5. If the homeowner sells his home in 10 years, electricity prices go up 10% per year,  the cost of funds is 7%, the present value of the panels is $8,457, which includes the present value of the $6,000 property value increase.  Many people do this calculation assuming no maintenance.  I consider that unrealistic, but for the sake of argument, the net present value of these cash flows would be $9,431 if there were no maintenance cost. 
  6. The feel-good factor, and bragging rights.  For the homeowner to break even on the deal, these bragging rights and feel good factor would have to be worth over $3,500 to him.

Society gets:

  1. Lower peak electricity demand, allowing delayed construction of new power plants.  Solar typically produces well on sunny summer days, which is precisely when the power is needed most to run air conditioning.
  2. Reduced need to build new transmission and distribution.
  3. Local industry and job growth, because the money is spent locally.  The value of this will depend on how much of the system is manufactured locally, but installation (about 50% of the cost) is almost certain to be local.
  4. Advances in PV manufacture, lowering future prices for everyone else.
  5. Less water use in power generation.  Natural gas fired generation uses up to 180 g/MWh of generation, with coal generation using 300-500 gal/MWh, and Nuclear using between 400 and 720 gal/MWh (EPRI, .pdf).  Using 400 gallons/MWh, our sample system will save 2,600 gallons of water per year (assuming 200 gallons are used for cleaning.)
  6. Lower emissions of global warming pollution (about 4.2 tons CO2 per year, worth about $2,000 at $20/ton, a 10% annual price inflation, and a 7% discount rate for the life of the system.)
  7. Lower conventional pollution: SOx, NOx, Mercury, and particulates.
  8. Lower fossil fuel  prices due to lower demand for electricity generation (a tiny incremental change, but spread over everyone’s fuel purchases.)  I estimate this to be approximately 1/3 of the saved fuel costs, as it was for the New York Energy $mart Program, or a present value of $2,100 over the system life, using the same assumptions as above, except that society retains the benefits so long as the system is producing.
  9. A household becoming more aware of how they use energy.
  10. A bill for $20,000.

The calculations for the net benefit to society are much more difficult than the net benefit to the system owner.  But as you can see, the system owner is not getting a bargain.  

The question for society is not "Is the system owner living it up at our expense?"  Paying $3,500 for bragging rights and feel-good factor seems far from a bargain to me (but then I like bragging about how much money I save, not how much I spend.)  The question we need to ask ourselves regarding these sorts of subsidies is, are we getting $20,000 worth of value for our part of the bargain?

Solar Consciousness Raising

The $20,000 cost is spread over large numbers of people, as are the benefits.  I used to think that the $20,000 price tag for society wasn’t worth it.  While all the factors listed are worth something, I found it hard to believe that they were worth $20,000, especially if that $20,000 could have been used to subsidize energy efficiency measures which could easily save ten times as much energy as the PV system, and hence produce ten times the environmental benefit.

That was before I understood the implications of societal benefit #9: a greater awareness of energy.   Unfortunately, most energy efficiency measures lack the visceral impact to get people excited about energy (although real-time, indoor smart meters have the potential to do so.)  I personally became interested in energy when my stepfather installed a (subsidized) solar hot water system on our house in the early 80s.  Now, my job is advancing the cause of clean energy by increasing the knowledge of investors.

With cost-effective energy efficiency measures, a subsidy can easily be justified based on societal benefits.  For solar PV, environmental and economic benefits may or may not be sufficient justification.  But people who generate their own electricity become much more aware of how they use it.  Awareness of how we use energy is the first step to using it wisely, and helping others to use energy wisely.  Better yet, the rich are more influential than the poor in our political process, which means that raising the awareness of the rich can have a multiplier effect through political impact.

Photovoltaics may not yet be a great investment for homeowners, but homeowners’ awareness of how they use energy is a great investment for the rest of us.


  1. Just recently, I had an eye-opening conversation with a guy who told me about some of the recent advances in Alternative Energy. This one conversation got me excited about the subject in general, which led me to sites such as this one. I admit to knowing little, but I am learning fast.
    My new friend is a successful engineer who built and sold a company for a lot of money. One of his many hobbies is learning about and investing in alternative energies. I learned that he sold his Fararri to buy one of the first Hybrids in Colorado (yes, for bragging rights). Ultimately, it is people such as my friend who will take the necessary risks to develope and nurture the new technologies. No, he doesn’t need a subsidy, but a large group of people like him (with a lot less free cash) do need those subsidies to pursue their passion. We need to encourage and applaud these people.

  2. A few years ago a Solar Water Heater Salesman explained how I could get a Solar Water Heater and Jacuzzi Hot Tub for free. With Federal and State tax credits, he clearly explained that it was a great deal funded by our governments.
    Solar hot water is often cheaper and more economical than PV… and has many of the same social benefits.
    Where do you live that this deal was on offer (unless it was just sales talk)? — TK

  3. In the state of Hawaii, it is necessary to import all energy fuel. Therefore it is very much in the interest of the state to encourage personal photovoltaic installations. The state has encouraged PV installation with tax breaks for at least 20 years that I know of and you can research this easily enough on google.
    In states where energy conservation is taken very seriously, such as California, the issue is how to reduce demand on the grid in the face of rising population and how to address global warming. The benefits to the earth which supports our lives – never mind society – far outweigh any other considerations. The markets for new energy technology have been subsidized heavily in the United States, since the 19th century. This pattern is being followed in alternative energy also.
    I participate in 2 alternative energy discussion lists I recommend to you. One is called Energy Consensus, out of Dept. of Defense. The other is called RAEL – out of the University of California Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. You will find a lot of info there that will increase the accuracy and usefulness of your work.

  4. Don’t you have to consider that a lot of people at the lower end of the income bracket get all their taxes back when they file. So they aren’t really paying for rich to have solar???
    Try reading the article before you comment. –TK


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