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Podcast

How to Unlock Super Cheap Rooftop Solar

Inside episode 17 of Shift Key.

A house with solar panels.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Why isn’t rooftop solar cheaper in America? In Australia in 2024, a standard rooftop system can cost as little as 90 cents per watt. In the U.S., a similar system might go for $4 per watt. If America could come even close to Australia’s rooftop solar prices, then we would be able to decarbonize the power system much faster than we are now.

Mary Powell has the answers. She is the chief executive officer of Sunrun, a $2.6 billion company that is the country’s largest rooftop solar and battery installer. Sunrun has set up or managed more than 900,000 rooftop systems across the U.S. Powell previously led Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest investor-owned power company.

On this week’s episode of Shift Key — a continuation, of sorts, to one of our most popular early episodes — Rob and Jesse talk about how the rooftop solar business works and what’s driving America’s higher costs. Shift Key is hosted by Robinson Meyer, the founding executive editor of Heatmap, and Jesse Jenkins, a professor of energy systems engineering at Princeton University.

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Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

Jesse Jenkins: And so, just some stats to start off the conversation. The latest quarterly solar update from the Department of Energy notes that the average cost of a 2 to 10 kilowatt residential rooftop system in the U.S. is roughly $4 per watt, DC, installed. That’s the full installed system costs, not just the modules.

I just looked up solarchoice.net.au, the Australian site that tracks bids and costs in Australia, which has one of the most vibrant rooftop solar industries in the country. There, you can now install a rooftop solar system in Sydney for just under $1 U.S. per watt, which is quite remarkable — you know, dramatically cheaper than it was a few years ago, but also dramatically cheaper than the U.S residential solar market, by a factor of four.

And so obviously, if we could knock the cost of rooftop solar in the U.S. down by another 75%, it would be an incredible value proposition all over the country. So, how do we get there, Mary? What explains why solar in the U.S., rooftop solar, is much more expensive than it is in places like Australia — I should say, it’s not just Australia. It’s also, you know, the U.K. and Germany and Belgium and other places. Why is it so much more expensive here now than it is in these other countries? And how do we drive down the cost of residential solar installations in the U.S. so that we can unlock that potential here, too?

Mary Powell: Yeah, for sure. I mean, that is so exciting when you think about it, Jesse. What gets me so excited when you say that is I think, ‘Oh my gosh, we are selling all across America now with savings against what people are paying for utility power.’ So customers — even at our current costs. So back to your question on how I see the future, just think about how powerful that will be as we continue to innovate and figure out ways to drive down the cost.

Now, that said, the biggest driver of the cost difference is the way the American energy system is built. And not just that, but we have 40,000 AHJs in the United States that each have their own distinct solar process and rules. And in Australia they have fewer than 600.

Robinson Meyer: And those are like cities?

Powell: It’s housing jurisdictions. It’s like — let me give you an example. In DuPage County, Illinois, we have to have a full time employee pull permits all day. Only one permit at a time.

You know, the other big thing in the U.S. is our whole energy system, as we know, it is very much driven by state and regional rules. Like rules of the road, a lot of regulatory differences from one jurisdiction to another, a lot of massive differences from one utility to another. So, you know, interconnection for residential is still costly, time consuming, and is even prohibited in some areas. Interconnection fees for home solar systems from utilities range from $100 to $10,000. So, one of the bright spots is the work that Sunrun was involved in, a lot of players were involved in, and that Secretary Jennifer Granholm is really focused on, which is SolarAPP+. So, that is one way to drive down the cost, Jesse.

Back to the difference: So really, I would say, the biggest difference is bureaucracy. When you talk about Australia and you talk about the U.S., that’s the biggest difference.

This episode of Shift Key is sponsored by…

Watershed's climate data engine helps companies measure and reduce their emissions, turning the data they already have into an audit-ready carbon footprint backed by the latest climate science. Get the sustainability data you need in weeks, not months. Learn more at watershed.com.

FischTank PR uses its decade-plus experience working in the climate tech space to introduce clients to top-tier journalists at the right time, for the right story. We don’t tire-spin — we take action and understand we are hired to get results. To learn more, visit fischtankpr.com.

Music for Shift Key is by Adam Kromelow.

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

Jesse D. Jenkins profile image

Jesse D. Jenkins

Jesse D. Jenkins is an assistant professor and expert in energy systems engineering and policy at Princeton University where he leads the REPEAT Project, which provides regular, timely environmental and economic evaluation of federal energy and climate policies as they’re proposed and enacted.

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