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

Economic

  • 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.

Environmental

  • 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.

Social/Equity

  • 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.

Administrative

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

Legal

  • 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.

 

Related Resources

 
Duke Energy Progress Partners with RETI for Community Solar

Duke Energy Progress (DEP) worked with the nonprofit, Renewable Energy Transition Initiative (RETI), to increase access to renewable energy programs for lower-income residents. This program provides an example of how utilities can use equity considerations to inform the deployment of renewable energy programs and resources. RETI works to eliminate high energy costs and make renewable energy solutions more accessible through educational programs, community outreach, research, advocacy, and partnerships. RETI promotes income-based applications and brings awareness to this energy-saving program by engaging with communities at local community events and churches. DEP and RETI also launched The Shared Solar program for its residential and non-residential customers to be able to share in the economic benefits from a single solar facility. The cost savings from this community solar program are allocated to low-income customers in the company’s territory.

Solar Works DC

The District of Columbia’s Department of Energy and Environment’s (DOEE) Solar For All Program is an example of a city government working with local contractors to provide Solar Photovoltaic (PV) systems at no cost to District residents who meet the income-restricted qualifications. The District is funding the Solar For All Program through money generated by the generation of renewable energy certificates (RECs), which can be earned through the D.C. RPS program. To qualify for the Solar for All Program, the household must be below 80% of the Adjusted Median Income (AMI) for D.C. Through this program, DOEE has been partnering with several organizations to install solar on single-family homes and develop community solar projects to benefit renters and residents in multi-family buildings. Offsite community solar provides the benefits of solar to residents who cannot install systems on their own homes but can receive credit on their electricity bill by participating. Under Solar for All, the Solar Works DC Program was launched to educate and train low-income District residents on opportunities available in the solar industry and provide increased solar capacity in the District while reducing energy costs for qualifying low-income homeowners.

California AB 693: Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) Program & the Multifamily Affordable Housing Solar Roofs Program (MASH)

California’s SOMAH and MASH programs provide an example of how financial incentives can be used to support the installation of solar energy photovoltaic (PV) systems on multifamily affordable housing properties. Assembly Bill (AB) 693 provides financial incentives for the installation of PV systems, prescribes criteria for participation in the incentive program, sets targets for installation of solar PV systems, identifies various required elements for the Program, and gives direction to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on the administration of the Program. The SOMAH program's goal is to encourage the installation of 300 megawatts (MW) of solar power to benefit affordable housing units by 2030. This program is funded through GHG allowance auction proceeds and is administered by nonprofits and electric utilities. Eligible building owners and tenants can receive solar credits through a virtual net energy metering (VNEM) system. The program provides direct economic benefits by allowing low-income renters to receive energy produced on the roof of their housing unit, which lowers monthly utility costs and helps “disadvantaged communities” reap the benefits of the growing California solar industry. 

Baltimore Shines - Baltimore, Maryland

Baltimore Shines is a program that helps low-income residents access solar energy through either roof-top installations or community solar projects. The program also expands workforce development opportunities in the solar installation industry. Baltimore Shines pilot projects were used to learn about barriers preventing solar installation in low-income communities and to inform the development of a sustainable financing model to increase access to solar energy. As the initial step to teaching energy affordability awareness, Baltimore Shines had community residents’ homes retrofitted by its close affiliate, Civic Works, which installed energy and water conservation equipment in homes. This program was not income-restricted and is open to any Baltimore City homeowner or tenant residing in a house or apartment. Baltimore Shines also incorporated the development of workforce opportunities for underemployed and unemployed Baltimore residents through job training and job placement. Additionally, Baltimore Shines leveraged a state funding program — the MD Community Solar Pilot program — that supported investments in renewable energy projects benefiting low- and moderate-income customers and encouraged private investment in the state’s solar industry with incentives for the investors. The program ultimately lowered bills, increased wages for some of the City’s low-income, under-employed or unemployed residents, and enhanced access to solar for many throughout the city.

The Energy Democracy Scorecard and Flipbook

Energy Democracy is defined as an ideal scenario where “[the frontline community] shifts completely away from an extractive economy, energy, and governance system to one that is regenerative, provides reparations, transforms the power structures, and creates new governance and ownership practices” according to the Energy Democracy Scorecard and Flipbook published in early 2020 by the Emerald Cities Collaborative together with the support from Anthony Giancatarino and Donna House. The Energy Democracy Scorecard provides a framework for frontline communities to reach the ultimate goal of energy democracy. The scorecard aims to help frontline communities utilize the moment when societies are developing green energy to address long-time social and environmental injustices and to gradually shift from the extractive and burdensome energy system. The Energy Democracy Flipbook is designed to help frontline communities who are vulnerable to climate change to self-evaluate their communities’ energy economy condition. The Flipbook uses the four major issues/criteria mentioned above to define energy democracy and further set three types of conditions.

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