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Energy Equity: Bringing Solar Power to Low-Income Communities

By Maria Gallucci, the 2017-2018 Energy Journalism Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. Originally published at Yale e360 as part of its Climate Desk collaboration with Grist

Isbel “Izzy” Palans lives in a small cabin nestled among mountain peaks and towering trees in the Colorado Rockies. Her home is often shaded and, during the long winters, buried under heaps of snow. Her monthly utility bills show credits for solar electricity production, but no solar panels are affixed to her roof. Instead, the power comes from a solar array some 60 miles away in a nearby valley.

Last year, the panels nearly slashed her energy bill in half. “I’ve been thrilled,” said Palans, a 76-year-old retired waitress who relies partly on Social Security benefits to make ends meet.

Palans is a subscriber to a 145-kilowatt solar array project run by Holy Cross Energy, a rural utility cooperative. Built with state funding, the program provides solar credits to more than 40 low-income households in western Colorado that otherwise wouldn’t have the financial or technical means to access renewable energy. The venture is just one of a growing number of so-called “community solar” projects across the United States focused on delivering renewable energy — and the cost-savings it can provide — to low-income households, from California to Minnesota to Massachusetts.

Community or shared solar is broadly definedas a project where multiple participants own or lease shares in a mid-sized solar facility, usually between 500 kilowatts and 5 megawatts, and receive credits that lower their monthly utility bills based on how much power the facility delivers to the grid. The sector has emerged as a “bright spot” in an otherwise sluggish U.S. solar market, outpacing growth in new residential and utility installations that has been stymied by fading federal and state incentives and the Trump administration’s import tariffs on solar equipment. U.S. community solar capacity has more than quadrupled since 2016, increasing from more than 300 megawatts to nearly 1,400 megawatts today. That is enough electricity to power roughly 266,000 households. Analysts say they expect another 600 to 700 megawatts to go online this year.

The vast majority of community solar subscribers to date, however, have been businesses, universities, government agencies, and higher-earning households — all of which can generally pay the steep project enrollment fees or meet financial requirements. Meanwhile, those who could benefit the most from access to renewable energy and lower utility bills — low-income residents — have largely been left out of the rise in community solar, analysts say.

Less than half of U.S. community solar projects have any participation from low-income households. Of projects that do include lower-earning families, only about 5 percent involve a sizable share, or more than 10 percent, according to a November 2018 survey.

Recently, states and industry experts have been working to change these dynamics. A dozen states and the District of Columbia have developed, or are developing, a variety of mandates, financial incentives, and pilot programs to make it easier for low-income participants to access shared solar. About 50 million households, or 44 percent of the U.S. total, fall into this income category. Nonprofit developers are also trying new approaches, such as eliminating income and credit score checks for low-income customers, and offering short-term contracts for renters.

“Community solar really should serve the community, and have a diverse subscriber pool with each project,” said Marta Tomic of Vote Solar, a nonprofit in Oakland, California. “If we have this goal of empowering customers, of being able to provide them savings on their electricity bill, we need to close that gap [in participation].”

New Jersey is moving ahead with a pilot program to build around 75 megawatts of community solar projects a year — 40 percent of which will be dedicated to serving low- or moderate-income customers. Illinois’ new $30 million Solar for All program waives low-income participants’ upfront costs to join community solar projects and limits monthly fees. Colorado’s 2010 shared solar law, one of the first in the country, requires developers to reserve at least 5 percent of a projects’ subscriber pool for low-income participants. The state also awarded $1.2 million in grants to build eight low-income community solar projects, including the one Palans is enrolled in.

Washington, D.C.’s new Solar for All program, which aims to help 100,000 low-income households slash their energy bills in half by 2032, recently awarded $13 million in grants for community solar and similar projects. And in New York state, a new initiative will cover the enrollment fees and other costs for 7,000 low-income households to join community solar projects. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority recently awarded contracts for nine community solar projects with a combined capacity of 26.4 megawatts, one-third of which will be reserved for cost-free subscriptions.

“For equity reasons … there’s a basic desire to use community solar as a way to reach groups that wouldn’t otherwise participate in solar,” said Kenneth Gillingham, associate professor of environmental and energy economics at Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “There is still a market that’s untapped in the low- to moderate-income communities.”

While community solar initiatives vary widely, they tend to share two overarching policy goals. First, states and cities want to reduce living expenses for low-income households, which on average spend 8.2 percent of their income on energy bills — about three times more than moderate- to high-income households. For decades, government agencies have helped residents reduce energy costs by insulating their homes, replacing leaky windows, or installing energy efficient appliances. Analysts say that in this way, community solar serves as an extension of existing energy conservation and cost-savings programs.

In Colorado, for example, the nearly 400 households enrolled in the state’s eight low-income solar projects save between 15 and 50 percent on their electricity bills, amounting to average annual savings of $382 per household, the Colorado Energy Office found. In Washington, D.C., nearly 100 households are each saving $250 a year on their electric bills thanks to a 182-kilowatt project by New Partners Community Solar, a nonprofit developer that offers free subscriptions to low-income residents.

Groundswell, a nonprofit community solar developer, is installing 366-kilowatt’s worth of shared solar on houses of worship in Washington, D.C., which it said will help more than 120 low-income households in the city slash their utility bills in half, with about $500 in annual savings. The first project is set to break ground in April at the DuPont Park Seventh Day Adventist Church. Pastor Marcus Harris said leaders initially planned to install rooftop solar for the church’s own use, but decided to host the community solar project to spread savings to the neighborhood. “We are always looking for ways to impact the quality of life for those that are in this segment of the District of Columbia and wherever we can,” he said.

Shared solar projects also ensure that it’s not just homeowners with suitable rooftops who can access renewable energy. Nearly half of U.S. households— totaling more than 154 million people — aren’t able to host their own solar arrays because they lack suitable rooftop space or rent their homes. Millions more simply can’t afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars to lease a solar array or pay the enrollment or monthly subscription fees for a conventional community solar project.

“Just because you’re not affluent doesn’t mean you don’t care about the environment,” said Brandy Toft, environmental deputy director for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota. “It doesn’t mean you don’t have that drive to do what you can do to help.” The tribal government recently installed a 200-kilowatt solar array on its reservation, using a $490,000 state grant and donations from foundations. Revenues from the solar electricity should help reduce the energy bills of about 100 low-income families, Toft said.

Beyond reduced bills and increased access, proponents say shared solar arrays can provide additional benefits. An array that can interconnect directly to the grid’s distribution network eliminates the need for additional transmission infrastructure, which can be costly, and avoids electricity losses that happen along long-distance power lines, the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability think tank, said in a 2018 paper. Community-scale systems also occupy an “economic sweet spot” when they’re small enough to efficiently link to the local grid, yet large enough to achieve competitive electricity rates.

If coupled with energy storage systems, local solar projects can also supply backup power if the grid collapses during a storm or natural disaster. At the Maycroft Apartments, an affordable housing complex in northwest D.C., rooftop solar panels and batteries will soon supply three days’ worth of emergency power to a communal “resilience room,” where residents can charge cell phones and refrigerate medications. Under normal conditions, the array will connect to the grid, generating utility bill credits for low-income customers in the neighborhood. New Partners Community Solar, the lead developer, said the $300,000 project will come online this month.

Some solar developers also incorporate job training and hiring into their projects. In Minnesota, the nonprofit developer Cooperative Energy Futures works with groups like Renewable Energy Partners to provide on-the-job training for local workers, who could go on to get employment in one of the nation’s fastest growing industries. One of the first installations, a 204-kilowatt shared solar array, is atop Shiloh Temple International Ministries, which sits within a majority African American neighborhood in North Minneapolis where opportunities for employment are scarce. Renewable Energy Partners says it plans to train up to 200 workers in the city.

Brad Boston, a solar contractor in D.C., has so far trained about a dozen people on job sites, including some just released from jail. His firm, Suncatch Energy, works with Groundswell and other developers to install shared solar projects across the city. Boston said he strives to involve more people of color in technical fields such as electrical engineering, a trade that runs four generations deep in his family.

“With all the billions of dollars that are going out [into the economy] with solar, there’s a need to reach people who are most disenfranchised with these work opportunities,” he said.

On average, according to a recent study by researchers at Tufts University and the University of California, Berkeley, black- and Hispanic-majority census tracts have significantly fewer rooftop solar projects than white-majority or no-majority census tracts. For low-income households in particular, said Tom Figel, head of community solar at GRID Alternatives in Oakland, the push for state and local community solar policies is needed to overcome the financial and technical hurdles that prevent more inclusive participation.

“We know the market won’t serve these customers on their own,” he said.

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22 comments

  1. Ignacio

    This is one of my pet obsessions. Improving energy efficiency and investing in renewables is quite difficult for low income households. I`ve seen several examples of people wanting to do that but they could not afford it. I like these initiatives!

    Reply
    1. Ignacio

      On the other side I’ve seen McMansions with electric boards, servers zonificaction systems that look like spacecrafts. What a contrast!

      Reply
    2. Odysseus

      We need a site which collects these projects. Model it on charities like Modest Needs. Use the GoFundMe or Kickstarter model for good and to the hilt.

      There is no need to lose these opportunities, organize.

      Reply
  2. Daize

    Nice story, and I am happy to hear about it, but I cannot help thinking that this sort of project should be nationwide, government run, and should have started 10 years ago.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Well, at least it is starting now and somewhere. Every little bit helps a little bit. And good viable examples may inspire rising numbers of other grouploads of people in similar situations to adopt similar renewable-fed minigrids and microgrids for their own power needs. And such little public-service good-deed-doing grid-project entities could also drive and improve energy use among all their customer-users in ways that for-profit mega-utilities never would and never will.

      Reply
  3. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Yaaay! I love it when I read positive news on NC, and to learn that local and state government hasn’t been “drowned in a bathtub” and is actually helping low income families.

    An aside – I’ve always wondered if it ‘s surface (e.g., cars parked under the blazing sun in the Southern Tier), why ain’t it solar? Especially as energy capture increases, form factor improves, and fabrication technology races ahead.

    Reply
  4. dk

    Happened to be in HomeDepot yesterday, one of the promotions hawkers hailed me as I dithered by the power tools aisle: “Interested in solar for your home?” Me: Sorry brother, I rent. “Oh okay. But hey, now you know: HomeDepot does solar!” I’ll check their offering next time. I was trying to drum up interest in home-solar myself back in the 90’s, as a feature of new home construction, got laughs and blank stares. ;p

    Reply
  5. jfleni

    RE: Energy Equity: Bringing Solar Power to Low-Income Communities.

    It’s trivial to connect these communities together with both power wiring AND fiber-optics! Let the SOLAR power also bring the community together in another
    and more IMPORTANT way!

    Reply
  6. erichwwk

    Before one considers roof top solar panels for low income households, one might first determine whether this is the most beneficial energy program for low income folks. (and the higher income folks paying for them.) While this program (NWPA) also had what was then called an “alternative energy program”, the primary focus was on reducing energy usage via “energy efficiencey.”

    Northwest Power Act

    In response to studies in the late 1970s that showed the region could meet much of its future energy needs through energy efficiency at a lower cost than through nuclear power, the favored new generating technology at the time, the Act directed Bonneville to acquire all cost-

    As a result a Council was formed in the four state BPA and Columbia watershed. Community Action Programs were trained in energy audits (in the SAME program used to train Public Utility staff), and used in house staff to implement the conservation efforst that were cost effective. The Bonneville Power Administration paid for the upfront, cost effective opportunies that anyone able to procure the capital cost would implement WITHOUT incentives. These efforts “produced” the equivalent of two nuclear power plants.

    Efficiency can help Northwest meet 85% of new electricity demand
    Posted Aug 11, 2009

    Efficiency can help Northwest meet 85% of new electricity demand
    Posted Aug 11, 2009.. The Northwest can meet 85 percent of its new electricity needs over the next 20 years solely through conservation, and do so at half the cost of building power plants, according to the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council.

    That’s a radical concept in an industry that typically meets growing demand by adding new production. Yet by all indications at the state and federal levels, energy efficiency’s day has arrived. In the draft of the 20-year energy policy blueprint that the advisory council is slated to vote on today, it’s at the top of the region’s shopping list.
    “This plan is all about energy efficiency,” said Tom Eckman, the council’s manager of conservation resources. “In the next decade, that’s it. That’s where the action is.”

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Why must we settle for either efficiency or solar but not both, and are “higher income folks paying for them[solar for low income “folks”]? Considering all the other things our economy supports, why such concern for “the most beneficial energy program for low income folks”? Does everything need to be ‘optimal’? Optimality can be a very tricky criterion to define.

      Reply
  7. Jeremy Grimm

    I only saw the word ‘storage’ once in this post. If electric vehicles (not cars as presently instantiated) were more commonplace, and if they were charged during daylight hours — which implies either two sets of easily interchangeable battery packs or night shift labor, there could be some storage.

    It is nice that solar can connect to the Grid without having to pay for building infrastructure or for its maintenance — except is the existing infrastructure being maintained or replaced as it reaches end of life?

    Reply
  8. Cal2

    Hardly ever mentioned is solar. hot water heating.
    Some people use electricity to heat water which is really inefficient, especially if it’s nuclear.
    Even if gas or propane is used, solar hot water is easy, can be a do it yourself proposition and is way cheaper than solar electricity to install.

    At one time, practically every home in Florida had hot water collectors on their roof. Poor communities in South Africa often have them. Everything from a hundred foot black garden hose draped across a roof to a coil of flexible copper pipe from a plumbing supply store painted black works to a certain degree.

    Search ‘DIY solar hot water’ for lots of examples.

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I strongly agree! A great deal of energy is wasted converting between various forms. Electricity is nicely convertible but often at a high cost in the energy lost. Why incur that cost if it’s unnecessary? Solar power directly heats things nicely.

      Reply
    2. Synoia

      Better not to paint the copper. It will go black and then green by itself.

      Black by oxidation, and green from sulphur.

      Reply
  9. anon

    This article is describing aspects of the Green New Deal!

    Making clean energy technology available to All. Creating opportunities for work to All. Spreading low-tech solutions across the US. (Solar is much less tech than Nukes.) Creating distributed power grids that survive AGW climate events over the short-term.

    Having been involved with solar energy since the 1970’s, it is inspiring to see the growth of this technology. What was once considered foolish (Ronald Reagan) is rapidly becoming mainstream. Solar technology for the homeowner is, now, nearly plug-and-play.

    Here’s a link to a EnergyConservationOptimized Home built in 1990: http://www.land2plan.com/?page_id=344

    Reply
  10. Yassine

    I second all the positive comments on this thread, this is very good news indeed !

    One major advantage of community-scale PV is stated in the article :
    “Community-scale systems also occupy an “economic sweet spot” when they’re small enough to efficiently link to the local grid, yet large enough to achieve competitive electricity rates.” The spot is even sweeter than that : you get competitive electricity rates at a scale that can be invested in and thus owned by a community (several hundreds of thousands of dollars). Whereas with conventional generation (coal, gas, nuclear), you would need a multi hundred MW plant to get comparable electricity rates and thus a multi billion dollar investment that puts it out of reach of a community and into the hands of large corporation.

    This is a key aspect of a successful energy transition, as this changes the whole incentive structure for energy efficiency measures. Indeed, when the means of production of energy are owned by large corporation, they will do everything in their power -and they generally have lots of it- to keep generating ever more energy because their business models are based on it (“GROAF”), and so will activitely discourage any meaningful drive towards large scale energy conservation measures. Conversely, when the means of energy production are owned by the community, we can expect this disincentive for energy conservation to disappear.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      And if any of these community-scale PV powered micro-grid communities live in or near highly windy areas, they could perhaps install some windturbines to feed electricity into those same community minigrids. Since wind often blows strongest when sun is weakest, adding in windpower would allow for less storage facilities being necessary. Not “none” . . . but surely “less”.

      And if there were farming and/or forestry and/or brushery in the near-surrounding rural area; any biomass byproducts generated by all THAT activity could be used to fuel some small modest pyro-gas powered steam-turbine power generators for yet more power into the mini-grid and more income ( and more reliable income) back to the farmers and woodsters and brushers sourcing the burnable biomass. Plus biochar for recycling back to the land it was grown on.

      http://fingerlakesbiochar.com/combined-heat-biochar-chab-markets/

      https://www.treehugger.com/renewable-energy/eprida-new-sustainable-energy-technology.html

      Reply

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