Can a State’s Solar Party Start Without It?

Date: 27 Feb 2015 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

See our March 2018 update affirming these findings

In about half of U.S. states, an individual or business can have solar installed on their roof owned by someone else, and either buy the power or lease the array from that third party. These power purchase or lease models drastically simplify the process of going solar (at a price), avoiding the work of managing tax credits, utility or state rebates, and system maintenance.

It also appears that a state’s solar market doesn’t really start growing until solar gets simple.

Let’s look at the top 10 states in solar per capita. Guess which states allow third party ownership of solar arrays?

State Capacity (MW) Population (Millions) Per Capita PV (MW/Millions of People)
Arizona 776 6.7 115
New Jersey 845 8.9 95
Nevada 214 2.8 76
New Mexico 152 2.1 73
Delaware 61 0.9 65
Vermont 39 0.6 62
California 1893 38.8 49
Massachusetts 267 6.8 39
Connecticut 106 3.6 29
Colorado 134 5.4 25

Every single one.

But it’s not just the top 10. If you look at the 26 states with more solar installed per capita than the national median––2.3 megawatts per million persons––21 of the 26 solar market leaders allow third party ownership. In the map below, you can see the clear overlap of third party ownership rules with solar capacity.

Note: the “Top 25” is actually the 26 states at or above the median capacity per million persons.

top solar states 3rd party

These “Top 25” states account for 99% of all solar capacity in the country.

In other words, people will go solar if it’s simple and––with the possible exception of Indiana––not before.

Third party ownership––via a solar lease or power purchase agreement––makes solar simple, and this simplicity is necessary because financing solar remains so complex. In contrast, 75% of Americans choose ownership over leasing when acquiring a new car, because there’s financing available at the dealer and few, if any, federal, state, and utility-based incentives to manage. If solar ownership can be made as simple as owning a car (or even a home), expect solar ownership to swell.

So why doesn’t every state jump into third party owned solar arrays?

Because there are substantial advantages to states in simplifying solar ownership. Ownership means more of the economic value of of a solar array stays local, whereas the third party market for solar is dominated by a few national firms. These firms are less likely to tap the in-state supply chain for everything from legal services to panel manufacturing. In other words, the cost of third party provided simplicity is economic returns.

Unfortunately, few states (if any) have figured out how to make solar ownership as simple as leasing, and the data shows that states that want solar have to make it simple. It’s no easy choice.

This article originally posted at For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter or get the Democratic Energy weekly update.

Photo credit:  Matthias Friel via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license)

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John Farrell

John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power.