Pay for my solar panels!

Solar is a hard sell in the midst of global recession and continued unemployment. Just try convincing a middle class family with a mortgage and car payments to part with $40,000 for a rooftop installation. So long as rooftop builds are the only way to get solar energy, the growth of the home solar industry will plod along, subject to macroeconomic whims.

Here’s where innovation comes in. It wasn’t that long ago that owning an in-home radio required massively expensive and short-lived parts, including a rooftop antenna. However, public and private investment in radio led to a chain of innovations, from longer-lasting tubes to FM transmission. Of course, skeptics doubted the commercial clout of the radio, just as some doubt the viability of developing a solar transmission infrastructure.

Might critics be wrong again?

Planet Forward contributor SunRun has an innovative idea to increase the spread of solar power without a five-figure commitment: Power purchase agreements. These nifty tools allow forward-thinking homeowners to buy solar power without setting up their own rooftop rig. By allowing consumers to select between dirty-burning coal and clean renewables, SunRun positions solar to stand on its own merits.

This plan activates what I call the “moral market.” Given the choice between powering your home with coal or solar, which option are you most likely to choose? Studies have shown that consumers will pay more for a product that makes them feel good about their choices, even when there’s no practical difference in quality. Solar offers both qualitative and quantitative differences.

A 2009 survey shows 9 in 10 consumers want solar, but few can afford to install rooftop arrays. By offering the chance to buy solar power without installations, companies like SunRun, Sungevity and others can expand the market - and money - surrounding solar innovation. That could be a game-changer in a down economy.

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