Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

Enhancing Access to Solar Energy

A stone house with a slanted roof and large hedges in front of it. There are solar panels on the roof and three men are attached to cables working on installing them.
A solar installation through the DC DOEE Solar For All program (Source: D.C. Department of Energy and Environment)

According to several studies, onshore wind and solar are the cheapest energy sources, so when working to create equitable resilient energy solutions for cities all over the country, creating access to solar can be a cost-effective priority for communities and local governments looking to introduce more readily accessible renewable energy resources.See footnote 1 Cities can provide financial resources to help increase access to solar energy for lower-income homeowners and renters. Programs and policies to expand access to solar programs for low-income homeowners and owners of affordable housing can help reduce energy cost burdens and lower GHG emissions. Cities can also combine funding sources to ensure that other necessary housing retrofits can be made when, for example, roof conditions, building code violations, or lead remediation issues present a barrier to solar installation.

When thinking about designing solar energy programs, decisionmakers need to consider strategies that reduce barriers and increase participation in solar programs for low-income residents and renters. First, participation in solar programs often requires ownership or access to a rooftop where solar panels can be installed. Solar is, therefore, inaccessible to many renters or owners of homes where solar panels cannot be feasibly installed. Additional barriers that limit the ability of low-income residents to access solar programs include: high-upfront costs (including both equipment and installation), credit requirements for solar financing, housing and rooftop conditions, and the costs of repairs.

Cities are transitioning to renewable energy and setting examples for others to follow by legislating new clean energy options that deliver benefits to low-Income communities. Some of these options include leveraging power purchase agreements, in which a buyer (the city) agrees to purchase a renewable project’s energy for a specific amount of time; or expanding green tariff programs, in which a utility, after authorization from the state public utility commission, will offer renewable energy directly to customers.See footnote 2 Another solution that is being explored to expand access is encouraging community solar programs. Community solar involves the installation of a solar electric system on a building or property, where the benefits of the energy credit and reduced energy bills generated by the solar project accrues to project participants — often residents of multifamily rental properties that cannot own their own solar systems.See footnote 3

Cities are also implementing complementary policies and programs to existing state mandates to encourage a transition to renewables. State initiatives to integrate clean and renewable energy into the grid can reduce energy costs and create new streams of income and tax revenues for owners via tax incentives, renewable energy certificates (RECs), net metering, grants, and rebates. Some cities have adopted complementary local policies with the same goals. For example, interconnection standards that mandate how utilities must connect renewable energy systems to the electric grid are usually implemented at the state regulatory level.See footnote 4 Often, there is a parallel permitting process required by a local jurisdiction (e.g., municipal building permit department) to ensure that residents’ systems are installed safely by installers, contractors, or the residents themselves.See footnote 5

Considerations of Enhancing Access to Solar


  • Solar is one of the cheapest energy sources.
  • Job growth in the solar industry may benefit local economies and generate local tax revenue.See footnote 6 
  • Financing is a significant barrier to low-income participation; therefore, solar programs should be designed to enhance accessibility and address affordability via reduced interest rates, extended-term lengths, and low or no money down finance offerings.
  • Homeowners and renters often cannot afford the upfront costs to install solar systems.


  • Solar energy creates clean, renewable power and reduces carbon pollution.
  • By increasing clean energy sources, cities can also help to improve air quality by reducing conventional pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.


  • Solar is often cost-prohibitive for lower-income homeowners and often unavailable to renters. As a result, the benefits of these programs are often inequitably distributed.
  • Enhancing access to solar gives customers a choice in energy production and use.


  • Fees, permits, and paperwork can hinder access to solar programs.


  • Compliance with local codes and regulations, including homeowner association restrictions, can present barriers to installing solar energy systems.See footnote 7
  • Financial and other incentives could be offered to help lower-income homeowners overcome permitting and other legal barriers.

Lessons Learned

  • Although solar is the most easily accessible renewable energy resource for a wide variety of customers, conventional solar programs can be seen as a luxury afforded only to homeowners and to those with disposable income.
  • More solar programs need to include fee waivers, technical assistance, and facility retrofit sub-programs that can be offered to help increase access to solar programs for low-income homeowners, renters, and community solar participants.
  • When working to enhance access to solar programs, consider alternatives, such as community solar, to conventional incentives for solar (such as tax credits and rebates) to increase access for lower-income residents, who likely would otherwise have trouble paying upfront for the high cost of solar infrastructure, and for those who are renters.
  • Supporting community solar programs and providing resources for installation and repair costs can expand access to the benefits of solar energy to more people.



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