November 15, 2021
Sunshine for All: Bringing solar energy to low-income communities
What strategies are state programs using to increase equitable access to solar energy in communities across the country?
By CJ Koepp, ELPC Intern 2021
Solar power is rapidly becoming a widespread, affordable, and efficient source of clean energy. However, tens of millions of low-income Americans lack access to solar energy despite facing disproportionately high energy burdens and pollution exposure. To bridge this gap, state programs have emerged in recent years to provide financial incentives for solar systems to low-income households. These programs can provide financial relief to individuals struggling with massive utility bills. Furthermore, programs offering solar workforce development can open the door to living-wage jobs in the rapidly expanding solar industry.
Today, twelve statewide programs work to fund solar systems for low-income households, whether they own or rent their homes. Each program takes a different approach, but all share the same goal: to reduce the energy burdens on low-income communities by expanding their access to solar power. No research that we found has been completed comparing the strategies, obstacles, and successes of these initiatives . . . until now.
I recently completed a report for the Environmental Law & Policy Center analyzing the unique strategies, shared barriers, and proven solutions of these programs. I reviewed twelve existing programs and interviewed three program administrators and identified three areas of focus as the key to a successful low-income solar program: accessibility, outreach, and environmental justice.
Low-income households encounter numerous barriers to clean energy, such as a lack of qualifying credit or disposable income, energy and financial illiteracy, or renting rather than owning their homes. To increase equitable access to solar energy, low-income solar programs must make it affordable and available for all low-income individuals and communities. Below are a few ways programs can start:
- Design simple, standardized, and predictable programs to increase interest and participation among potential customers and solar providers.
- Deploy multifamily and community solar for those who reside in affordable housing units, may move, or have inadequate solar resources (such as shading or poor roof conditions). Of the twelve programs surveyed, three include community solar projects and eight offer incentives for solar photovoltaic for multifamily properties.
- Reduce or eliminate the upfront cost of solar system installation. 75% of programs surveyed do so to offset the cost of going solar for low-income households.
- Offer customers on-bill repayment, which allows a third party to pay the upfront cost of an energy upgrade and the customer to repay this cost over time through payments on their reduced utility bill. Only five programs surveyed included this reliable and easily transferable repayment method.
- Source funding from Community Development Financial Institutions, Community Development Entities, and green banks to adequately match statewide demand for affordable clean energy.
In Massachusetts, the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) Program has supported a whopping number of solar system installations – 25,418, to be exact – thanks to their tariff-based incentives paid directly by utilities to a broad and inclusive range of system owners. Community solar projects as well as solar systems for single-family residences, multifamily buildings, nonprofit organizations, and public facilities are all eligible for compensation, which can be received through net metering, qualifying facility tariffs, or an alternative on-bill crediting mechanism.
Because low-income markets have been largely untargeted by solar marketing in the past, reaching potential customers is among the greatest challenges faced by low-income solar programs. Individuals may face language barriers or lack the internet access, time, and resources required to contemplate energy opportunities. Proven strategies to establish mutual understanding and trust with potential customers include:
- Understand the unique concerns, needs, and questions of low-income communities by meeting individuals where they are, answering questions respectfully, and responding to unanticipated complications.
- Work with community leaders and local action organizations to identify and build trust with potential customers. Half of all programs surveyed partner with community groups for their outreach efforts.
- Develop creative outreach tactics, including reaching out to recipients of other utility support programs or offering direct signups at government benefit centers.
- Offer financial, technological, and energy education through multiple information distribution channels. Two thirds of programs surveyed have an educational program component.
- Provide consumer protection support to ensure that state and federal consumer protection laws are adhered to and enforced.
While Washington D.C.’s Solar For All Program has acquired new customers using a variety of strategies, two outreach initiatives have been particularly successful. Firstly, their direct mail campaign targets enrollees of other energy assistance programs intended to support low-income households. Secondly, they offer direct enrollment at government benefit centers where potential participants have the time, mindset, and documentation they need to sign up. These initiatives are supplemented by a hotline, email address, and outreach team ready to answer any questions potential customers may have.
Environmental justice means that everyone receives equal protection from environmental hazards and meaningful involvement in decision-making processes about the environments in which they live, learn, and work. However, low-income communities, particularly communities of color, face greater exposure to air and water pollution than their wealthier peers as a result of discriminatory siting, unequal regulations enforcement, and limited access to political power, education, and legal expertise. Low-income solar programs can address environmental injustices and empower these communities by:
- Prioritize low-income communities, organizations, and leaders in decision-making processes.
- Provide immediate and tangible economic benefits for low-income program participants such as subsidized prices for community solar subscriptions or photovoltaic systems, supplementing bill credits received by customers, or including a bill savings requirement for program recipients.
- Source funding from utilities, private sectors, and energy suppliers.
- Complement existing energy efficiency, energy assistance, or weatherization programs to reduce overall household energy burden.
- Invest in environmental justice communities to build community wealth and development without displacement.
- Offer solar workforce development to provide living-wage job training opportunities and direct pathways to employment for low-income individuals. Only 42% of the programs surveyed offer solar job training.
The Single-Family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) Program, Disadvantaged Communities Single-Family Solar Homes (DAC-SASH) Program, Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) Program, and Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) Program – in other words, all four low-income solar programs in California – include solar workforce development and job training initiatives. These opportunities empower under-resourced communities by offering direct pathways to employment and creating a local workforce of skilled laborers to support the state’s expanding solar job sector.
Altogether, these low-income solar programs have provided households nationwide with over 740 megawatts of clean energy. That’s enough sunshine to power 120,000 homes! In the Midwest alone, funding for the Illinois Solar for All program has recently been quintupled by the passage of the state’s Climate and Equitable Jobs Act; Minnesota Power’s Low-Income Solar Program has been active for four years and counting; and DTE Energy is preparing to launch a Low-Income Solar Pilot in Michigan. One thing is clear: solar power isn’t only for the wealthy anymore. Everyone can and should be a part of our transition towards a future fueled by renewable energy.
Despite the success of these initiatives, forty-two states still lack active programs providing financial incentives for solar systems to low-income households. If you live in a state without a low-income solar program, contact your representatives and demand an initiative to reduce the environmental burdens of low-income communities by expanding access to solar power. If utilities, legislators, government departments, nonprofits, or the Public Utilities Commission are developing a low-income solar program in your state, this research can provide strategies for successful implementation.