New research argues pensioners, students, and disabled people need more support to deploy renewable energy installations if government is to reach its own solar targets

As energy prices soar, elderly homeowners, student renters, and the disabled are currently unable to benefit from solar PV installations, according to a new study from the University of Sussex Business School.

The new research comes amid calls for greater government support help deprived communities access the lower bills associated with solar panel installations and other clean technology deployments.

The research was based on a series of interviews with residents in the Brighton & Hove area, which identified how certain demographic groups are much less likely to have installed solar technologies, a scenario which the researchers argued could partially remedied by cheaper, smaller systems or shared ownership business models

Addressing the lack of affordable options for solar PV installation, one householder commented: “Students are excluded from solar adoption, I have two children in university and they have neither the money nor any capacity (a home, a house, a flat) to benefit from solar energy.” 

In the UK, 800,000-900,000 households have solar PV installed in the UK. Feed-in-tariffs – which were phased out in 2019 – were integral to solar PV growth, with the study identifying a noticeable decline in domestic adoption since the incentive scheme was phased out.

However, falling solar technology costs and surging gas prices have led to a revival in the domestic solar market, with a growing number of households currently looking to install solar panels that would allow them to reduce their energy bills. But interest in deploying solar and other domestic renewable technologies such as heat pumps tend to be limited to those households with the capital to fund installations, sparking warnings that the trend could see existing economic inequalities further exacerbated.

Benjamin K Sovacool, professor of energy policy in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “Our study finds that solar energy adoption can exacerbate inequalities in many different ways including its availability to different groups of people and depending on whether one rents or owns their home. There are also disparities in terms of where people live in the UK and the availability of a skilled workforce or infrastructure to support solar power.”

The academics behind the research said policy initiatives such as tax incentives and grants to help lower the cost of installing solar in neighbourhoods with high deprivation could help to tackle current trends that could otherwise result in widening financial inequality. Broadening out recent interest-free loan systems for electric vehicles to incorporate the installation of photovoltaic panels would also address distinct solar challenges experienced by different households, they said.

The study also identified a concerning ‘rebound’ effect among some households that had installed PV systems, which saw some interview subjects use solar energy generation to justify increased use of electrical appliances such as TVs, clothes driers in the summer and hot tubs. The researchers suggest progressive energy tariffs or in-home displays, as part of a package of wider energy awareness and demand reduction measures, could help dis-incentivise this behaviour. 

Dr Max Lacey-Barnacle, research fellow in Just Transitions in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “The recent announcement by the UK government around increasing energy security through greater deployment of renewables features an aim to triple the amount of solar power in the UK by 2030.

“In light of this announcement, solar advocates, manufacturers, and policymakers can least afford to ignore the mounting justice issues associated with current patterns of adoption, particularly if this pace of adoption is tied to increasing energy security concerns. Through directly addressing or acknowledging some of the inequities we have outlined in our paper, policymakers can facilitate future solar schemes that may foster greater social acceptance and enhance more equitable outcomes”

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