As public perception changes solar energy poised for explosive growth

In his State of the Union Speech, President Barack Obama noted that Americans are flipping the switch on as much new solar power every three weeks today as they did in all of 2008. There are good and growing reasons for that explosive growth.

And all indications are that solar adoption in the United States will only continue to accelerate in the coming years. The reason: solar technology is advancing rapidly. It’s becoming more and more affordable and more and more popular.

Just as cell phones started as cumbersome bricks that cost a fortune and made a statement about the people who used them, rooftop solar panels started out as a weird and expensive technology that we weren’t sure would catch on.

Today, Bolivian women pull flip phones from the pockets of their traditional garb and American six-year-olds play Candy Crush on their parents’ iPhones without anyone batting an eye.

The cost of solar panels has come down more than 75 percent since 2008 and costs continue to drop. Utilities are grappling with new ways to manage the technology. Many are still trying to fight it off, but others are embracing it.

A recent report from the NC State University Clean Energy Technology Center found that solar is already more affordable than grid power in 42 of the nation’s 50 largest cities when it’s financed. The number drops to 20 for systems purchased outright.

The NC Clean Energy Technology Center set out to show the financial viability of rooftop solar in a world where public perception, while changing, hasn’t quite caught up with reality.

“Most Americans are unaware of the true financial value of solar today,” the report reads. “Seen by many as a technological luxury, solar energy is not seriously considered as an option by most homeowners in the U.S.”

In fact, the country still gets slightly less than 1 percent of its energy from solar. While Americans are installing solar at record-breaking rates, the NC report suggests that industry growth would be dramatically increased if only people realized what a wise financial investment a solar installation is. The report found that a fully-financed rooftop solar system is a better long-term investment than the S&P 500 in 46 of the 50 largest American cities.

“So why aren’t more Americans investing in solar?” the report asks. “There's a clear information gap.”

So, as the NC center aims to inform the American public that solar can result in solid monthly savings and long-term investment gains, the US government announced this week that it would make some major investments in solar as well.

The US Department of Energy announced it would provide more than $59 million in funding to support solar energy innovation.

One goal of the funding is advance solar manufacturing so that US companies can support the expected doubling of solar installations between now and 2020.