This week, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates will face off in their final televised debates of the year.
These politicians are not just candidates for president, however. Like millions of other Americans, they’re also candidates to install solar panels on their roof and save money on their energy bill.
We’ll leave it to the voters and pundits to pick the best candidates for Commander in Chief. But when it comes to identifying which candidates can save the most money by going solar, we can offer some insights – based on our experience of installing more residential solar power than any other provider in America.
Sizing up the candidates
To assess which presidential candidates are best suited to go solar, we considered various criteria, including:
-the amount of sunlight each candidate’s neighborhood receives
-the friendliness of state and local policies toward solar power
-the cost of conventional grid electricity in each candidate’s area
All other things equal, a strong solar candidate is one whose home receives plentiful sunlight, who lives in an area with friendly solar policies, and who currently pays a high price for grid electricity (see our full methodology for this post).
The Republican field is crowded and full of residents from sunny Florida, but it’s Chris Christie of New Jersey who emerges as the GOP’s top solar candidate. Installing solar panels at his home in Mendham, NJ could win him major energy bill savings – arguably more than any of his competitors.
What gives Governor Christie the edge? New Jersey isn’t as sunny as southerly states, but it still catches more than enough rays to make rooftop solar a winning proposition. Thanks to the Garden State’s stellar clean energy policies, including a law that 4.1% of its electricity be sun-powered by 2028, the Christie household has a strong incentive to go solar.
Since New Jersey’s utility electricity prices are among the highest in the nation, using rooftop power can be a huge money saver. And for every megawatt hour of solar energy a homeowner does produce, they can earn hundreds of dollars in tradable “renewable energy credits” – often yielding more than $1,000 per year. That market-driven incentive suggests Christie is poised to be a highly successful solar customer.
The Garden State’s well-designed net metering rules also support Christie’s solar candidacy: his local utility pays homes fair and full compensation for any surplus clean power they contribute to the grid -- a policy that Governor Christie himself recently moved to expand.
Other GOP hopefuls
What about the other Republicans in the running? Donald Trump’s residency in New York implies that he’d be an excellent solar candidate – given the state’s high electricity prices and generous clean energy incentives – but there’s a complication: the roof of Trump Tower, underneath which Donald lives in a three-floor penthouse, appears to be full of obstacles that could impede solar panels. (Don’t worry, we’ll revisit New York when we assess the Democratic contenders below.)
The roof of Trump Tower -- underneath which Donald resides -- is undeniably "huge." But there appear to be various structural obstacles to installing a full system of solar panels. (Image from Google Maps: 725 5th Ave, New York, NY)
Ted Cruz lives in a high-rise condo in Houston. But even if he were able to talk his condo board into installing a rooftop system, he’d still be a mediocre solar candidate in 2016. Texas currently has no statewide incentive for solar, nor a framework to compensate homes for contributing clean electricity to the grid. However, Houston’s convention center is topped with a large solar array, and a number of energy providers in Texas do actively support distributed generation; Senator Cruz could conceivably find a way to keep his candidacy alive.
John Kasich’s solar candidacy isn’t much stronger than Senator Cruz’s. Ohio does have a solid net metering policy, but the state’s solar goals are meager (only 0.5% of electricity by 2026) and there are few real incentives to put panels on one’s roof. Kasich’s utility electricity rates, like Cruz’s, are relatively low. And his neighborhood in Westerville receives less sunlight than any other GOP candidate. That doesn’t rule Governor Kasich out of the race, but he’s a long shot.
Despite living in the most sun-drenched neighborhoods, the three Floridian contenders – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson – are among the weakest solar candidates due to Florida’s energy policy shortcomings. The state has a basic net metering law, but solar and other renewables are largely neglected in the Sunshine State. There are no true solar incentives and the state actually prohibits the most affordable way for a home to go solar – a no-money-down lease or power-purchase agreement (PPA).
Very few states and jurisdictions in the US prohibit solar leases and PPA’s like Florida does, but Carly Fiorina’s area of Virginia is another one of them. Combine that with Virginia’s low electricity prices and its limitations on net metering, and you can see why Fiorina is this election’s lowest-ranked Republican solar candidate.
The Democratic contest of solar candidates is a much smaller affair, and far more competitive than the Republican race. But one candidate stands apart as most likely to save a bundle by going solar – and that’s Hillary Clinton.
The Clintons have plenty of roof space on their estate in Chappaqua, and have access to New York’s terrific solar incentives – including a $600/kilowatt discount on installation (e.g. $3K off for a typical 5 kilowatt rooftop system), a state tax credit up to $5K, and a strong regulatory commitment to net metering. The state is also working hard to extend these benefits beyond upper-class neighborhoods like Chappaqua: low-income New Yorkers qualify for significantly greater solar incentives than wealthy households like the Clintons.
Hillary’s candidacy looks even more compelling when you consider that New York’s residential prices for grid electricity are among the highest in the nation. In SolarCity’s experience, New York solar customers save $256 on average on their electricity bill in the first year alone.
New York is a great place for residents like Hillary to go solar in part thanks to a state initiative called Reforming the Energy Vision, which has prompted utility companies like Hillary’s to support advanced grid technologies such as distributed solar and battery storage.
There’s no doubt that Clinton’s challengers, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, are also strong solar candidates.
Senator Bernie Sanders’ state of Vermont is aiming to source 75% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2032 and, to help get there, his utility in Burlington offers a supersized payment for solar electricity that homeowners contribute to the grid. Moreover, using free fuel from the sun just makes practical sense given Vermont’s increasingly expensive grid electricity.
Maryland’s Martin O’Malley also could save big by going solar at his home in Baltimore. His state seeks to generate 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022, a portion of which must come from solar. If O’Malley were to install rooftop panels, he’d get paid by his utility for sending clean power to the grid, as well as earn renewable energy credits worth hundreds of dollars – which could help him fund his underdog electoral campaign.
The Road to the White House
Will 2016’s presidential candidates – Republican and Democrat – realize the potential of their candidacy to go solar? At least a few of them stand to save big bucks on their energy bill, and installing solar panels has never been simpler or easier than it is today. Every 2.5 minutes, another American home or business goes solar.
Today’s weaker solar candidates could very well become stronger candidates in the near future. The solar energy landscape in places like Texas and Florida is showing seeds of progress. Awaking these “sleeping giants” with effective solar policies and energy innovation could easily upend the rankings above.
Regardless, at least one presidential hopeful will be using solar power by early 2017. The next leader of the free world will move into a house that already comes equipped with a rooftop solar array.
Rooftop solar panels on the White House (Credit: Whitehouse.gov via YouTube)
But of course you don’t need to be a presidential contender to go solar. Find out what kind of solar candidate you are here.
Barry Fischer is Editorial Director at SolarCity; Graphics by Priscilla Lopez.
Methodology and Data Sources:
The candidates we considered were those who consistently received voter support of at least 2% in national polls between November 23 and December 1, according to RealClearPolitics’ poll aggregator.
Location of residences is based on LoanDepot.com’s overview of presidential candidates’ homes.
Daily average sunlight: candidates' hometowns were plugged into NREL’s PV Watts calculator. Solar irradiation estimates (kWh/m2/day) correspond to the nearest TMY2 location from NREL’s National Solar Radiation Database. The tables in the post depict a ranking out of 6 kWh/m2/day, which treats the generally sunniest region of America (the Southwest) as a yardstick. Candidates’ neighborhoods had fairly similar solar irradiation, so this variable was less prominent in our analysis.
Local solar policy ranking was based on four criteria. Satisfying three or more criteria earned a happy face (NJ, NY, VT, MD); satisfying two criteria earned a neutral face (OH, TX); satisfying zero or one criterion earned a sad face (FL, VA).
-The candidate’s home has access to net metering (either through state policy or a competitive electric provider), and the state cap is >1% of aggregate peak demand.
-Their jurisdiction allows third-party solar leases and power purchase agreements.
-Their state has a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), and the RPS has a carve-out of >1% for solar or distributed generation.
-Their state offers a non-negligible rebate for solar installation, and/or awards Solar Renewable Energy Credits.
Utility electric prices are residential averages (rounded to the nearest cent) from 2014, according to the US Energy Information Administration (as reported in December 2015). The note that utility electricity prices are rising in each candidate’s state is based on the trend that between 2002 and 2015, residential electricity prices in each state increased in both nominal and real terms (faster than the rate of economy-wide inflation).
Qualitative estimate of expected bill savings: strong solar policy and above-average electric prices (>$0.12/kWh) led to high expected savings; mediocre solar policy led to moderate expected savings; deficient policy led to low expected savings.
The number of SolarCity operations centers in a candidate’s state implies a certain degree of regional readiness for installing solar panels, but was not explicitly considered in our assessment.
New York first-year customer savings savings based on residential PPA and lease customers with at least twelve months of billing data. Savings Rate calculated by subtracting PPA or equivalent lease kWh rate from relevant utility kWh rate. Savings calculated by multiplying actual kWh supplied by SolarCity in customers' first year times Savings Rate. Excludes fully or partially prepaid contracts.