Although the Recession has slowed down the rapid rise of alternative energy technologies like solar, wind, wave and biofuels, the future is still quite bright. The good news for homeowners and businesses large and small is that the benefits of home solar power are not restricted just to the sunniest states. Impressive gains are being seen in some unlikely places as well.
It's probably no surprise that interest in solar power is heavy in sunny California. PG&E, one of the state's major utilities, reports that it connects to 40% of all solar panels in the U.S. It's probably also not a stretch to believe that South Florida is a hotbed of solar activity, given balmy weather and a progressive bent. Likewise, parts of the Phoenix area are becoming heavily solarized, and to a lesser extent solar panels are being deployed fairly regularly up and down most of our nation's coasts, where there is less of a concern with shading and a higher concentration of people with money to spend on improvements.
Of course, the decision to go solar is a big one, and it can seem complicated, as well as expensive. Getting started may be easier than you think, however, and what's particularly exciting are the rise of solar panel leasing plans and neighborhood groups that are pooling resources to get hefty group discounts.
So what determines consumer interest in home solar power? Major factors do include availability of sun, as well as social and political values, disposable income and - significantly -- state and local incentives. (Check out DSIRE, The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, to find out what incentives and rebates are offered from your state, town or utility.) We can get a fascinating overview of how these various factors influence actual consumer behavior with this mashup map by Cooler Planet.
Cooler Planet took all of the inquiries they've received over the last several years -- some 30,000 -- and mapped them on a live data, interactive heat map. Who's Cooler Planet? They're a Seattle-based company created by environmentalists with backgrounds in software engineering and online marketing, with one goal: "Over time, we aim to provide you all the tools and resources you need to reduce the carbon footprint of your home, your business, and your life." Cooler Planet's service is completely free, and matches interested homeowners and businesses with their network of pre-screened Green Professionals.
More solar energy information.
A look at this map shows some of the trends above (wealth and progressive values tend to correlate to interest in solar power in Seattle and Boston, for example, despite a relative lack of sun.) Also worth noting is the hotpots in New Jersey and Colorado, two states with incentive systems that promote adoption of solar technology, in addition to California. But there are also some regions that may surprise some observers. One note is that the interest map does skew toward regions with more dense populations, but even taking that important fact under consideration we think some trends are worth noting:
While the Evergreen State does have a concentration of progressive, tech-savvy and green leaning folks in the Seattle area and Bellingham, it's interesting to note that interest in solar power is still fairly strong in rural areas and, to a lesser extent, the eastern part of the state, where incomes are much lower. Further, Washington is the cloudiest state, both in reputation and according to the data. In fact, the first 14 least sunny cities in the nation are all in Washington.
The Twin Cities are known to be progressive and relatively affluent, so it's not surprising that people there would be interested in solar power -- although it's also true that Minnesota is quite cloudy and has notoriously rough weather. Interest in solar is still quite strong through much of the state's farm country.
The Windy City is not known for friendly weather, and the dense population doesn't necessarily make it easy to find shade-free spots. Still, the city has been experiencing a bright green renaissance, in no small part spurred by Mayor Richard Daley.
The Rust Belt in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana
A Red State that has long opposed progressive energy reform (and my home state), it's perhaps surprising that there's as much interest in solar power in Indiana, particularly in the Rust Belt north, where the weather is also often dreary (it is the setting for A Christmas Story). Solar power is also coming on quite strong throughout Ohio and lower Michigan, two states that are heavily represented on the list of least sunny. Plus, that part of the country has been hardest hit by the global recession, with soaring unemployment and grim real estate prospects, so in some sense it's a wonder that anyone is able to look forward.
Bicoastal environmentalists and trend watchers often don't expect progressive, risk-taking behavior to come from rural Kentucky, Tennessee, the western Carolinas and northern Georgia. Yet this region shows pretty solid interest in renewable energy, even in areas that are not densely populated.
Upstate New York
While it's not surprising that Massachussets has high interest in solar power, given it's deep blue leanings and strong state incentives, as well as relative wealth, neighboring upstate New York is a bit more interesting. The area is cloudy, cold and experiencing economic decline.
Here's a map of least sunny U.S. cities with more than 50,000 people:
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