Partisan conflicts over solar power in Congress, but not among the public

Partisan conflicts over solar power in Congress, but not among the public

Despite the growing partisan divide over solar power adoption in the United States Congress, public adoption of solar power is occurring across the political spectrum. In addition, solar households are active voters. These findings are encouraging for policymakers who are promoting renewable energy. 

Mildenberger, M., Howe, P.D. & Miljanich, C. Households with solar installations are ideologically diverse and more politically active than their neighbours. Nat Energy 4, 1033–1039 (2019).

Renewable energy is essential in fighting climate change, but attitudes towards transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy have become increasingly divided along partisan lines on Capitol Hill. Generally speaking, Democrats want more regulations to support renewable energy and combat climate change, while Republicans want fewer. However, this partisan polarization appears to be less prevalent among members of the public.  

A 2019 paper in Nature Energy examines characteristics of households with rooftop solar to determine if there is a relationship between political affiliation and solar adoption. Using satellite imagery of solar rooftop installations and U.S. voter data, the study determines that Americans across the political spectrum are recognizing the benefits of solar power.  

Surprisingly, the research found that many solar households are Republicans, although these households are still overall more likely to be Democrats. About 34 percent of households installing solar rooftops identified as Democrats and 20 percent are Republicans. The rest of the solar households studied were not affiliated with any party. The exact motivations behind solar adoption are not clear, but common motivations include financial incentives and pro-environmental attitudes.

Researchers also found little difference in political composition when they looked at technology adoption stages. From early solar adopters to laggards, the political affiliation is similar between solar adopting and non-adopting households. In addition, researchers do not find evidence supporting the common belief that early solar adopters are usually environmentalists while late adopters are driven by financial incentives. These findings have important implications for solar energy advocacy. Solar advocates may be able to achieve broad public support, given that solar adoption is independent of party affiliation across technology adoption stages.

While this study did not find adopting solar to be a partisan issue, the researchers found that solar households are more active in political issues than their non-solar counterparts. Between 2008 and 2017, solar households had a disproportionately high turnout in federal, municipal, and primary elections. This is exciting news for those who favor moving away from fossil fuels. It suggests that solar adopters may have a greater influence on renewable energy transition than non-adopters.

However, partisan differences in support for solar do exist when it comes to political donations. About 0.9 percent of Democratic solar adopters have made donations to their parties as compared with 0.3 percent of Republican solar adopters. This finding is important for candidates in both parties to understand donor preferences and priorities.

This is the first study to clearly identify the relationship between solar technology adoption and party affiliation. It suggests that renewable energy transition is not simply a “Democratic versus Republican” issue. In addition, the findings are illuminating for policy makers seeking to promote the transition toward a sustainable, low carbon future in a highly divided political environment. Many laws and policies are mired by gridlock due to the long-standing divide between the two parties. However, this study indicates that solar adoption could be one of the few issues that can cross party lines. If legislators are able to reach across the aisle, rooftop solar can encourage a transition toward renewable energy.