THE BLOG
01/30/2015 05:04 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

"Keeping Up With the Joneses" Gives Solar Revolution a Boost

Conscious capitalism has been the domain of corporations since Ben & Jerry's first added macadamia nuts to their ice cream to help raise awareness about the need to protect the rainforest.

Tom's Shoes got into the act when they started providing one free pair of shoes to poor kids in developing countries for every pair someone in a richer country bought.

Now PURE Energies is doing its part by leveraging the solar panels one family installs to inspire their neighbors to do the same.

For years, solar companies encouraged people to tap into the power of the sun primarily as a way to save money on electricity. In the last few years, as more homeowners came to understand the link between burning coal and climate change, reducing one's carbon footprint became a solar selling point, as well.

Then PURE Energies, an NRG Home Solar company, learned of research done in Connecticut indicating that one reason why people install solar panels is because their neighbors do. In fact, "keeping up with the Joneses" turns out to be a primary motivator to switch to solar, especially in a state like Connecticut that's not known for being either particularly sunny or full of "early adopters."

In a study reported in the October 7 issue of the Journal of Economic Geography, researchers Marcello Graziano of the University of Connecticut and Kenneth Gillingham of Yale University reported that "Our empirical estimation demonstrates a strong relationship between adoption and the number of nearby previously installed systems as well as built environment and policy variables."

PURE Energies' translation? "The biggest factor that determines whether people go solar is not their income level or their monthly electricity bill, but whether or not someone near them has already gone solar."

The conclusion is important because heretofore, conventional wisdom generated the perception that solar was too expensive for the middle class. The research actually showed that more middle class than upper income Connecticut households are installing solar. Not only that, but the nearer someone lives to a neighbor who puts up photovoltaics, the more likely it is that he or she will do so, too.

Specifically, noted reporter Chris Mooney at the Washington Post ,

"The installation of one additional solar photovoltaic rooftop project within the past six months in a given area increased the average number of installations within a half mile radius by ... almost one half. As the spatial area widened, meanwhile, the influence of peer solar installations steadily decreased, a finding quite consistent with a theory of peer influence...."

Though proximity seems to be the critical factor, financial incentives do help homeowners take the solar plunge. Connecticut offers its citizens excellent individual financial rewards to tap the power of the sun. The state has also created an initiative they call Solarize Connecticut, and it's pure genius. First, homeowners are encouraged to commit to go solar. Then, they earn a discount if they spread the word and get more of their neighbors to go solar, too. (You can read about another version of these "solar co-ops" here.)

PURE Energies is taking these lessons a step further. The company, which helps a homeowner figure out what kind of solar system to buy and then how to finance the installation, is offering its customers $400 for every successful referral they generate. The referrals don't necessarily have to occur in the immediate neighborhood - all friends, family, relatives, colleagues and acquaintances are fair game. But PURE Energies will certainly be encouraging its customers to look next door, and maybe even put up a lawn sign so folks who are walking their dogs, playing ball with their kids in the street, or just driving by can get the message.

"While there may be many good economic and policy reasons to support clean energy," researcher Gillingham told the Washington Post, "in the end, humans are also social animals, and motivated by peer and group effects.

"You want to conserve, and be environmental, but you want to do it in a conspicuous way," he says.