While a broad, national energy policy would obviously be helpful – driven, in a rational world, by a carbon tax – when it comes to solar, every state is a little different, from the literal lay of the land to the amount of sun received to the types of buildings and houses to the shape of the existing energy market.

So how to go about devising sensible state policies on the increasingly touchy issue of distributed solar? It’s tough, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “Policymakers face challenges, including limited budgets and incomplete information about the effectiveness of the various policy options in their specific situation and in crafting and executing policy that supports market development goals,” the lab says.

state solar policy
Groupings in state-level solar policy study. (image via NREL)

In other words, states are wandering around in the dark.

But the NREL, with funding from the Obama administration’s Sunshot Initiative, didn’t just point this out – they actually endeavored to try to help the states move toward seeing what might work best for them by grouping the state’s into four categories, then testing how different policies might play out. The four groups:

  • Expected leaders, described as “twelve states that possess above-average technical potential for rooftop PV and have historically demonstrated public support for clean energy policy.”
  • Rooftop rich, described as “states that have above-average technical potential for rooftop PV, but lack favorable economic conditions to stimulate demand for PV technology.”
  • Motivated buyer, described as “states that have demonstrated public support for clean energy policy in the past or have economic conditions that favor PV adoption.”
  • Mixed, described as “states with a variety of non-policy factors influencing installed PV capacity, none of which suggests a singular motivation for adopting PV as it might in other peer groups.”

After running “statistical and empirial analyses to gauge policy impacts in varying situations,” NREL noted that:

The analysis shows that the effectiveness of solar policy is influenced by demographic factors such as median household income, solar resource availability, electricity prices, and community interest in renewable energy. The data also show that it’s the number and the make-up of the policies that spur solar PV markets. Follow-on research expected for release this summer identifies the most effective policy development strategies for each state context and provides strategies for states to take action.

The study by the NREL is kind of wonky, but for those who like to dig into the issue, chapter four, which presents a case history for each state type – Maryland (expected leader), North Carolina (rooftop rich), Delaware (motivated buyer) and New Mexico (mixed) – could be edifying. The PDF is here.

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