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.
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.