Why solar for low-income communities?
Solar has long been seen as a technology reserved only for hardcore environmentalists and the wealthy. And, historically, the high cost of solar and the emphasis on incentives in the form of tax credits has put solar out of reach for the majority of Americans. But precipitously falling prices over the last five years, coupled with creative financing approaches, makes solar accessible for an increasing portion of the population. Because of these changing external conditions, this issue is suddenly ripe for action.
There is a critical need now to begin deploying solar in low-income communities and to develop effective project models and policies to scale this deployment quickly and broadly. On an individual level, low-income households spend an average of 15 to 20 percent of their income on energy bills. This puts a strain on already tight budgets and makes families significantly more susceptible to rising energy costs. Helping households save money on electricity directly translates into a family’s ability to better cover other basic needs, including food, housing costs, education, and medical expenses. On a macro level, renewable energy provides broad community benefits, including local jobs, economic growth, private investment, and lower rates of pollution. In short, solar provides significant benefits to the members of society that need them most.
Using low-income solar to create a wedge
There is also a political urgency to focus on low-income solar. Utilities and renewable energy opponents have long blocked clean energy development by claiming it is a cross subsidization. They argue that wealthy homeowners benefit from solar while low-income ratepayers bear the brunt of higher energy prices.
In many jurisdictions, utilities have played the “equity” argument in order to drive a wedge between advocates of renewable energy and local progressive groups. ALEC also funds this basic messaging. This sort of divide-and-conquer strategy can be very effective at stopping clean energy and climate legislative proposals. For example, progressive legislators from low-income and inner-city communities have often been reticent to support climate legislation.
Historically, many traditional environmental groups have also not focused on ensuring renewable energy policies and programs are accessible to all citizens. As a result they have had a hard time engaging with and getting consistent public support from low-income individuals, as well as from advocates and elected officials who represent low-income communities. Solar projects that directly benefit low-income communities are therefore an extraordinary opportunity to not only support those communities, but also build positive bridges that can lead to a fundamental repositioning of key sectors of the progressive movement around climate solutions.
It is critical to ensure that low-income communities benefit from any local, state, or federal solar policies. All citizens should have the opportunity to take advantage of renewable energy incentives and initiatives.
We're beginning to compile resources on low-income projects. If you know of any other reports, let us know!
- Resilience for Free: How Solar+Storage Could Protect Multifamily Affordable Housing from Power Outages at Little or No Net Cost. October 2015. Clean Energy Group.
- Bridging the Solar Income Gap. January 2015. GW Solar Institute.
- The Power of of Energy Efficiency — Building a Stronger Economy for Appalachia (Part 1). April 2014. Appalachian Voices. Discusses energy efficiency, but many of the same arguments apply to solar.
- Clean Energy for Resiliant Communities: Expanding Solar Generation in Baltimore's Low-Income Neighborhoods. February 14, 2014. Prepared for the Abell Foundation by the Clean Energy Group.
- Successful Solar Incentive Programs Grow Solar Penetration Within Low-Income Communities #203. February 2013. District of Columbia Sustainable Energy Utility (DC SEU).
- Integrating Photovoltaic Systems into Low-Income Housing Developments: A Case Study on the Creation of a New Residential Financing Model and Low-Income Resident Job Training Program. September 2011. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
- From Power to Empowerment: Plugging Low Income Communities Into The Clean Energy Economy. 2016. Groundswell.
- LIGHTS OUT IN THE COLD: Reforming Utility Shut-Off Policies as If Human Rights Matter. 2017. NAACP.Bridging the Solar Income Gap
Examples of low-income solar programs and initiatives
While the sector is still not well developed, there are a number of solar pilot programs and creative initiatives to make solar accessible for low-income consumers.
Some organizations, such as GRID Alternatives, that have been implementing ongoing programs aimed at bringing solar to low-income families or creating jobs within communities. Others are pilot programs that have tested various approaches to implementing low-income solar.
The following is an (incomplete) list of low-income solar initiatives and models we’ve gathered. If you know of additional programs or models, please let us know!
These nonprofit organizations run programs to help low-income individuals go solar or gain job training and experience.
- Grid Alternatives
- A non-profit solar installer in California, Grid Alternatives leads teams of volunteers and job trainees to install solar electric systems exclusively for low-income homeowners, providing needed savings for families struggling to make ends meet, preparing workers for jobs in the fast-growing solar industry, and reducing carbon emissions.
- Details about Grid’s recent expansion to New York
- GRID Alternatives helps launch nation's first low-income community solar garden
- Nebraskans for Solar Energy
Nebraskans for Solar’s mission is to develop a statewide solar powered low-income housing program in partnership with other nonprofits that build or rehabilitate low-income housing, and our supporters. In November 2013 Nebraskans for Solar and Habitat for Humanity of Omaha raised funds to install solar hot water systems on two efficient, Energy Star rated Habitat for Humanity houses in Omaha. These are currently the only two solar-powered Habitat for Humanity houses in Nebraska. The organization is continuing to fundraise to put solar projects on Habitat homes, as well help local schools go solar.
- New Vision Renewable Energy
- A non-profit located in Philip, WV, New Vision works locally and globally with faith-based and community organizations to get renewable products into the hands of the people that will benefit the most. They organize time banks and community “barn raising” initiatives to help low-income families go solar and save on their electric bills.
- Detailed profile of New Vision Energy’s work in West Virginia
- Renewable Energy and Electric Vehicle Association (REEVA)
- Located in Fincastle, VA, REEVA is a Do-It-Yourself club to help members do solar/wind installations and build electric vehicles at home, lowering the price of a project by removing labor costs. They also install solar systems on community buildings and provide solar installation trainings to create jobs in rural communities
- Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative
- Located in Plymouth, NH, PAREI’s mission is to encourage energy conservation and energy efficiency practices and to promote the use of renewable energy in the Plymouth region. They organize solar “barn raisings” to help low-income community members go solar at no cost
- Solar Richmond
- A nonprofit founded in 2006 in Richmond, California, Solarize Richmond offers free solar training, staffing services leading to temporary and permanent employment, and green business ownership opportunities for low income and under-employed residents. Serving as a solar and green-jobs advocate, they work with partners to promote solar and inclusive green economic development in Richmond and the Bay Area.
- Evergreen Cooperatives
- Launched in 2008 by a working group of Cleveland-based institutions (including the Cleveland Foundation, the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and the municipal government), the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative is working to create living wage jobs in six low-income neighborhoods (43,000 residents with a median household income below $18,500) in an area known as Greater University Circle (GUC). One of their initiatives is Evergreen Energy Systems (E2S), a company that designs, installs, and develops PV solar panel arrays for institutional, governmental, and commercial markets. E2S is 100% owned by its workers, who live in the City of Cleveland and face barriers to employment.
- RREAL is dedicated to making solar energy accessible to communities of all income levels, and has been pioneering the use of solar energy to address fuel poverty throughout the nation. RREAL accomplishes its mission primarily through its Solar Assistance program which provides residential solar energy systems to low-income families on public energy assistance as a lasting, clean and domestic solution to fuel poverty.
- Citizen Energy
- A nonprofit in Imperial, CA, Citizens Energy installs solar systems on the homes of low-income customers of the electric utility Imperial Irrigation District (IID). Citizen Energy partnered with San Diego Gas and Electric to co-develop the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line to provide additional power to the Imperial Valley in CA. Revenue from the transmission line project is used to fund the low-income solar installations.
A number of organizations have also implemented stand-alone low-income projects or pilot initiatives.
- River Garden Apartments in New Orleans, LA
- An 8-block long, mixed-income housing development, River Garden Apartments is currently the largest solar neighborhood in the southeastern US and the largest project in the state of Louisiana. 420 kW of panels were installed on roofs of homes in the neighborhood, with most systems ranging in size from 4kW to 6kW. Residents pay about $0.10/kWh for electricity and save about $50/month on their utility bills.
- DC nonprofit solar bulk purchase program
- In 2013 DC SUN piloted a bulk purchase program for DC organizations interested in going solar. Local nonprofits, community organizations, churches, or small businesses were eligible to participate, with the goal of providing organizations with the opportunity to go solar and reduce their electricity bills. Three organizations participated in the program and went solar via a Power Purchase Agreement.
- Habitat for Humanity EMPOWERHOUSE project for Solar Decathlon
- In 2011 students from the Parsons The New School for Design, The New School for Management and Urban Policy, Stevens Institute of Technology, and Habitat for Humanity of Washington, D.C. collaborated to design a sustainable home for DOE’s 2011 Solar Decathlon. The home, designed to be extremely energy efficient, includes a 4.2 kW solar system that powers all of the home’s appliances and heating/cooling systems. After competing in the Solar Decathlon the home was moved to the D.C. neighborhood of Deanwood, where it became a home for a family selected by Habitat for Humanity of Washington.
Local, state, or federal policies can serve to increase access to renewable energy, create opportunities for low-income communities to invest in renewable energy projects, or ensure that all citizens benefit from renewables.
- “Community shared solar” is generally defined as a solar-electric system that provides power and/or financial benefit to multiple community members. Community shared solar legislation can be a critical tool to open up access to renewables by allowing renters, homeowners with shaded roofs, tenants of apartment buildings, and others, to receive the benefits of solar energy.
- There are a number of different models for community solar projects. Although most do not explicitly address low-income citizens, some have incorporated requirements designed to ensure access by low-income customers. Legislation recently passed in Colorado has a provision that requires 5 percent of all solar garden production to go to low-income households.
States, municipalities and utilities often implement incentive programs to provide solar systems to low-income citizens and customers.
- In a number of states and municipalities – including Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, and Sacramento – local utilities offer utility managed programs to promote solar (and weatherization) for low-income homes via small donations on customer utility bills.
- The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center partnered with the Low-income Energy Affordability Network (LEAN) to provide incentives to install solar hot water systemson multi-family residential and nonprofit facilities serving low-income residents and participants across the Commonwealth. This program aimed to demonstrate reductions in energy operating costs for owners, educate the installer industry, and improve consistency and competitiveness of bids for solar thermal.
- The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) and the Sustainable Energy Utility in Washington, DC recently implemented a low-income solar incentive program that put solar on 87 low-income homes in the District. A paper summarizing the results of the program is available here.
- The Federal Government currently spends between $3 billion and $4.5 billion dollars per year on its low-income energy assistance program (LIHEAP). In many states, LIHEAP works together with the Weatherization Assistance Program, an initiative launched by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 1975 to help low-income families invest in energy efficiency. In 2012, the WAP’s budget was $68 million (the White House has requested that Congress raise this to $184 million in 2014). Additionally, 48 states set aside LIHEAP funding for energy conservation assistance. A number of pilot projects have already redirected some LIHEAP funding towards solar.