Powering Up Solar Energy for All

April 26, 2016 | 2:30 pm
Derrick Z. Jackson

Solar energy’s powerful promise should be available across the economic spectrum. Two new reports about the policies that make that kind of broader access possible—and a lot of examples from coast to coast—are showing the way.

Low-income solar developments

Solar energy for low-income residents is becoming a staple of local news. Last week, the New York City Housing Authority announced a new sustainability campaign that includes 25 megawatts (MW) of rooftop and parking-canopy solar power by 2025. The Wall Street Journal wrote that the 2.5 million square feet of panels could power 6,600 apartments and would cover the equivalent of eight Washington Square parks.

Nilda Mesa, the city’s director of sustainability, said the goal, along with green jobs, is part of a “major turning point for public housing.”

Earlier this month in Paso Robles, California, that city’s housing authority finished 70 new affordable units that come with solar carports to offset tenant electricity, according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune. A month ago, the Department of Energy announced new programs for rooftop and ground-mounted solar arrays for several tribal communities in upstate New York, Alaska, Montana, California, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

In a small, but touching act in Bergen County, New Jersey, a 5K was held this month to benefit Habitat for Humanity, which is building its 25th home in the area, complete with rooftop solar. In a bigger act a couple of months ago, community solar developers and activists in Colorado came to an agreement with Xcel Energy for a new array of community solar gardens to push the state past the 100 MW barrier.

Also in February, an interfaith collaboration with the solar firm PosiGen and the Connecticut Green Bank was launched to spread solar power and energy efficiency to low income communities in that state. In that program, residents don’t pay deposits or go through credit checks for rooftop solar systems and would have some of the lowest monthly lease payments in the nation, reportedly about $20 a month.

Piece by piece, this is what top solar advocates are hoping to see even more of very soon—whether on individual homes, public housing, or community shared projects or funded by local, state, federal, foundation, or private sources.

Promising policies

The burgeoning potential of solar beyond the stereotyped (but wrong) image of wealthier white suburban homeowners, big-box stores, and massive town fields erected over landfills was the focus of a briefing on Capitol Hill in March.

The briefing centered on the rollout of the “Low-Income Solar Policy Guide” by GRID Alternatives, Vote Solar and the Center for Social Inclusion. The report highlighted many areas around the nation where local, state and federal policies on greenhouse gas emissions and tax incentives, grants, and “green banks” have been successfully utilized to get solar to Americans who normally couldn’t afford the $12,000 to $29,000 average cost of a 4- to 8-kilowatt installation.

For progress in single-family rooftop adoption, the report highlighted programs in California, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, DC. Just as important, efforts to diversify the solar workforce were cited, including San Francisco’s GoSolarSF. That program says its job placements through its workforce development program are 40 percent black and 22 percent Latino.

In community solar, the report highlighted Gardner, Massachusetts, for a project that helped a nonprofit disability and substance abuse organization reduce energy costs enough to fund equipment and programming to get residents out in the community. In community-based efforts to join the solar economy, the report noted worker-owned cooperatives in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

Overall, the report said,

The market opportunity is huge: Over six million affordable housing units currently exist in the United States, and although precise figures for low-income homeowners are difficult to pinpoint,… census and other data suggest that there are around 22 million owner-occupied households with incomes at or below 80 percent of their area median income. Targeted solar policies could open up access for these households on a large scale.

Congressional support

Seconding that hope on the Hill for low-income solar on a large scale were House members Keith Ellison of Minnesota, and Barbara Lee and Tony Cardenas, both from California. Last year, the three introduced legislation to provide grants for low-income residents to go solar and loans to companies to build solar arrays that benefit low-income consumers.

Ellison said solar hits so many “targets” of equity, cleaner air, clean energy, and reducing energy bills, “It’s at the heart of where we should go. We’ve got to make this THE political issue as a key to clean energy . . .solar is not just . . . where the Whole Foods are.”

The report by GRID Alternatives and friends was issued just after a similar-toned one by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. IREC’s “Shared Renewable Energy for Low-to-Moderate Income Consumers” said there is a massive untapped market for solar as 60% of American households earn $68,000 or less. Citing many of the incentives mentioned by GRID, that report also suggests a suite of financing mechanisms to free up capital for community solar efforts.

“Shared renewable energy programs enable multiple, dispersed customers to share the economic benefits from one renewable energy system via their individual utility bills,” the IREC report said. “Shared renewable energy represents a critical means of expanding access.”

No longer can you guess solar by zip code

It’s clear that an expanding number of Americans want such access. In December, Kevala Analytics, an energy data-consulting group, found a dramatic increase in solar installations by moderate-income families in California, a state which some of the nation’s strongest initiatives to encourage renewable energy.

In 2008, according to the analysis, households in zip codes with a median income of $70,000 and less accounted for 49 percent of installations. In 2015, such households accounted for 65 percent of installations.

Changes like that “may be the result of lower prices making solar more attainable for people in moderate-income zip codes,” Kevala said:

….These trends illustrate what makes intuitive sense—the market for solar is strongest among people where a 10-to-20 percent savings in their electricity costs is meaningful enough to drive investment in alternative electricity supplies.

All put together, these trends and reports illustrate that if policies continue to make solar more attainable, the market for solar has barely been tapped.

About the author

More from Derrick

Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize and National Headliners finalist, a 2021 Scripps Howard opinion winner, and a respective 11-time, 4-time and 2-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Education Writers Association.