“Solar for All”: How Utilities Can Increase Access to Solar Energy

, senior energy analyst, Clean Energy | June 20, 2016, 12:39 pm EST
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A new report looks at what utilities can do to “bring solar within reach” for a broader swath of U.S. households, particularly in lower-income areas and communities of color. The answer: a lot.

SELC-PSE-SCACED Solar for All reportSolar for All is a product of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), the Partnership for Southern Equity, and the South Carolina Association for Community Economic Development, and is supported by more than a dozen other state and regional organizations.

The report addresses the important issue of solar equity and access, the idea that we need to do more to make sure underserved populations have better access to solar PV systems and the direct benefits that come from them.

The new work rightly points to the benefits to everyone of solar anywhere: the availability of clean energy, often at times when it’s most needed, potentially with important cost reductions across the electric system, and the economic development potential of such a local, distributed technology.

But the report also rightly points to the challenges for low- and moderate-income (LMI) households, involving upfront costs, access to credit, challenges for renters, and more.

How utilities can enable solar access

So how can utilities be part of the solution? Solar for All spells out three areas where best practices can be brought to bear: “diverse financing options, community solar programs, and programs leveraging existing low-income and rural energy assistance funding.”

Diverse financing. What the authors are pushing for is a range of options for financing PV, options that make PV more affordable for more people. In some cases that’s just about making available to lower-income households what’s already available to others in many states, and has been key to solar’s incredible growth: third-party arrangements like solar leases or power purchase agreements.

A handful of states don’t allow those, and you could imagine that in-state utilities could push to change that. On-bill financing—having the utility finance a purchase—is another approach.

Community solar. Many of us can’t do solar on our own roofs, or don’t own our roofs (renters, for example). Buying into a community solar system is a way of still getting a piece of the action. Solar for All suggests options like creating a carve-out for LMI customers, doing away with upfront costs, siting some of the solar arrays themselves in underserved communities, and incorporating job training.

Smiles in the sunshine. Credit: Solar Energy Industries Association

Now on to the next million. (Credit: Solar Energy Industries Association)

Leveraging of existing programs. Federal, state, and local programs that are already in place to serve LMI customers—for energy efficiency, for example—can be expanded to cover solar, too, the report suggests. In some cases, that might work best when coupled with efficiency upgrades.

Solar for All offers a range of examples involving solar or energy efficiency, cases of utilities demonstrating interventions that expand access and improve their customers’ situations.

The national picture

The report focuses on southern utilities, where the authors are based, but includes a broader swath of the country in the examples, and a lot of their points would apply to electricity providers nationwide, even given different regulatory environments.

It’s certainly true that this isn’t an issue confined to just one part of the country. Solar equity has even been a focus of the Obama administration, with an initiative launched last year to expand solar access. And the latest approach to the early-action credit under the Clean Power Plan, released last week, actually offers double credit for solar in low-income areas.

Onward

“Solar power,” the report says, “presents an opportunity to provide LMI customers with clean, affordable, renewable energy, helping families to control energy costs while expanding investments in local communities.” Utilities need to be active, helpful partners in making that happen.

Lauren Bowen, an SELC attorney, says that the examples in the report “demonstrate the opportunities and benefits solar power can provide for lower income families and communities of color.”  And, she says, “It is time for southern utilities to embrace this effort, to bring the power of the sun to all.”

Solar for All sheds important light on how that can happen.

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