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Booming Community Solar Sector Promises Access for Low-Income Households

Determined to make good on the promise of equity contained in the phrase “community solar,” more than a dozen U.S. states and non-profit developers are working hard to ensure that low-income Americans have fair access to the power of the sun.

The combined capacity of such projects “has more than quadrupled since 2016, increasing from more than 300 megawatts to nearly 1,400 megawatts today,” and is projected to rise as high as 2,100 MW this year, Yale Environment 360 reports. That’s based on a broad definition of community solar as a mid-sized project in the 500-kilowatt to five-megawatt range, in which multiple participants own or lease shares.

But what has remained troublingly flat in the world of community solar, thanks to pricey enrollment fees and stringent credit checks, is buy-in from low-income subscribers.

“Less than half of U.S. community solar projects have any participation from low-income households,” a constituency of 50 million in the U.S., the publication states.

That statistic is entirely out of step with the sector’s professed goal of “empowering customers, of being able to provide them savings on their electricity bill,” said Marta Tomic of the California-based non-profit Vote Solar. “Community solar really should serve the community, and have a diverse subscriber pool with each project,” she added.

A number of states and non-profits agree, and are working hard to make it easier for low-income household to get access to community solar projects.

Two examples of equity-building initiatives are Illinois’ US$30-million plan to waive up-front costs and limit monthly fees for low-income subscribers, and Washington, DC’s aim “to help 100,000 low-income households slash their energy bills in half by 2032,” by way of a “recently-awarded $13 million in grants for community solar and similar projects,” Yale notes. Also participating in the drive to put the “community” back into community solar is the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which “recently awarded contracts for nine community solar projects with a combined capacity of 26.4 megawatts, one-third of which will be reserved for cost-free subscriptions.”

Those efforts are playing out at a time when low-income families spend an average of 8.2% of their income on electricity, about three times more than moderate- to high-income households—a situation in which the right community solar program design can make a big difference. For instance, Yale notes, the “nearly 400 Colorado households enrolled in the state’s eight low-income solar projects save between 15 and 50% on their electricity bills, amounting to average annual savings of $382 per household.”

Beyond resolving issues of energy equity, the article notes that community solar is ideal for the more than 150 million Americans who either lack rooftop space, or rent their homes. And shared solar projects offer a series of wider benefits.

“An array that can interconnect directly to the grid’s distribution network eliminates the need for additional transmission infrastructure, which can be costly, and avoids electricity losses that happen along long-distance power lines,” Yale reports. And “if coupled with energy storage systems, local solar projects can also supply backup power if the grid collapses during a storm or natural disaster.”

One case in point is the $300,000 project led by New Partners Community Solar to supply rooftop solar and batteries to an affordable housing complex in DC. When it goes live later this month, it will be sufficient to “supply three days’ worth of emergency power to a communal ‘resilience room,’ where residents can charge cell phones and refrigerate medications.”

And “under normal conditions,” Yale adds, the project will quietly live up to its ethical billing, “generating utility bill credits for low-income customers in the neighbourhood.”