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Bringing equitable access to solar energy for low-to-moderate-income communities starts with addressing the financial and knowledge barriers

Millions of Americans in low-to-moderate-income communities face steep cost barriers to benefiting from traditional models of solar energy in addition to a myriad of other barriers, and it doesn’t stop there. The organizations that serve them are facing similar hurdles when it comes to accessing clean energy programs. While community solar programs have been established in multiple states to address this issue of accessibility, participation has typically been low even though the programs often cost nothing or require only a very minimal fee to join. Furthermore, and they even offer savings on energy costs.

The Problem: Awareness of Community Solar Programs for Low-Income Communities

Community solar is not always on the radar when it comes to organizations considering options that serve disadvantaged communities – and this is part of the problem. Community solar is the most accessible option for clean energy initiatives and is designed to increase participation in solar. In an ideal situation, community solar should be one of the first options to be considered. However, this can only happen through increased education about the solar programs available to these organizations.

Case Study: Christopher Community’s Journey to Community Solar

Take for example the path Christopher Community, an affordable housing provider, took to selecting community solar. Initially, they had considered rooftop solar for their properties but discovered that it would not have the impact they had initially imagined. Not all their rooftops were suitable for solar panels, and there was also the additional consideration of time and cost burdens of investing in solar systems.

What people often don’t consider is the time it takes to take on a solar project themselves. Learning about solar arrays, the permitting process, and the installation process can all take time away from the primary focus.

When Christopher Community learned about community solar, they weighed the overall cost of rooftop solar against community solar and decided on community solar. Subscribing to a community solar project was their ideal solution that would allow them to participate in renewable energy programs while saving money on their electricity bills. Furthermore, they wouldn’t need to worry about any upfront costs or maintenance fees.

Here are some additional benefits to community solar:

  • No rooftop installation or maintenance work is required;
  • No upfront costs;
  • 10-15% in savings off their energy bills;
  • Reduced carbon footprint.

Rooftop Solar Versus Community Solar Programs

Rooftop SolarCommunity Solar
Solar Array OwnershipMust be purchasedShared subscription to project
Initial Capital Investment High installation costsNo upfront costs
Electricity Cost SavingsUp to 15%Up to 10%
Maintenance and OperationRequiredNot required
Good Credit ScoreYesNot required
Tax benefitsYesNo

What you need to know about community solar programs

Community solar programs are made possible through solar farms where the solar developer assumes the cost and responsibility for building and operating the solar farm. If the farm is designated as one that offers a community solar program, then local businesses and households can subscribe to the project without fees or other costs. Many developers can pass on a 5%-10% discount on energy to the subscribers.

A single community solar project can power hundreds and sometimes even thousands of homes. For those who do not have the means or space to install solar panels onto their rooftops, community solar is the perfect option. It also favors renters and those who live in apartment complexes who are unable to install solar rooftop panels.

How does a community solar program for LMI service providers work?

Organizations that service low-to-moderate income households can simply partner with a solar developer or broker to find a community solar program in their area. First, the community solar provider will size their electricity usage, usually for a year to get the most accurate picture. Then, the provider will match the organization to a community solar program in their utility region and assign a share of the program to the organization. The savings typically range from 5% to 10% and usually have no fee attached. Some providers may attach a nominal fee of around $5 per month to administer it.

Furthermore, businesses and organizations that sign up for community solar can redirect money back into their programs, creating a “knock-on” effect. These money-saving strategies positively impact the financial needs of an organization and set a leading example for other organizations to do the same. It’s a win-win strategy: it lowers the energy bill while taking an active role in addressing climate change.

Share the benefits of community solar programs with the people you serve

Largely, these solar programs are working towards expanding access to affordable energy in every household. A survey conducted by Uplight found that low-to-moderate income (LMI) customers tend to be less aware of energy-saving programs, and 32% of LMI households reported having financial challenges with their electricity bills. This is three times the rate of higher-income households. Being able to communicate the long-term benefits of community solar as a money-saving solution, is key in granting LMI households the opportunity to reap the rewards of a practical program.

“Community solar is solar for everyone,”

Despite having enough solar energy to power nearly every American household, many still face obstacles to affordable solar-powered electricity. Community solar is a powerful solution that provides affordable solar energy to any household regardless of their income level. It’s not necessary for a person to own their own home or have a suitable rooftop space in order to participate in community solar’s incentives. Furthermore, cutting down costs for low-income households can provide some financial relief while allowing them to be environmentally responsible.

“Community solar is solar for everyone,” says Pallavi Balakrishnan, Community Solar Manager at OYA Solar, “Whether you’re interested in sustainability, saving money on electricity, or developing your long-term energy strategy, community solar is the accessible, low-risk option.”

Getting to the Goal of Achieving Energy Equity with Community Solar:

  • In August 2021, New York launched a major initiative called the Inclusive Community Solar Adder Program, which would provide $52.5 million in incentives for community distributed projects that target LMI households. This is a major step towards addressing the inequity issues that have long been a concern within the solar industry. OYA is excited about participating in this program and is looking forward to supporting LMI households and other disadvantaged communities.
  • Studies have shown that LMI makes up 43% of the population in the United States.1 More incentives need to be made available to LMI communities to close the gap. That’s why OYA has partnered with Astral Power Inc., to target acquiring residential and LMI subscribers. There are 110 cities across New York state that are categorized as disadvantaged communities. With this new partnership, OYA is hoping to make community solar more accessible to those who need it the most.
  • Recently, Erie County launched a community solar campaign in collaboration with Western New York Sustainable Business Roundtable. There is a sizeable LMI population in Erie County and OYA Solar was eager to support this initiative by providing equitable access to their solar project.

A community solar program is a viable option for everyone, one that targets all income levels. It is also a progressive step towards achieving the Biden-Harris Administration’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2035, ensuring that each household can partake in clean energy incentives while building community wealth. Community solar really is a two-bird-one-stone formula where subscribers are able to save money while contributing to a more sustainable future.

References

1 Flanegin, K. (2018, September 12). Can Low-and-Moderate Income Households Play a Role in Realizing U.S. Rooftop Solar Technical Potential? Retrieved November 5, 2021, from https://www.nrel.gov/state-local-tribal/blog/posts/can-low-and-moderate-income-households-play-a-role-in-realizing-us-rooftop-solar-technical-potential.html