Solar for all? U.S. cities take green power to low-income homes

A community solar project in Gloversville, New York. October 19, 2021

A community solar project in Gloversville, New York. October 19, 2021. Nexamp/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

What’s the context?

Washington D.C. is among American cities betting on community solar projects to meet climate goals and help residents reduce bills

  • Community solar seen key to boosting access, climate goals
  • Sector growing by 1 gigawatt a year in United States
  • U.S. government aims for 700% increase by 2025

WASHINGTON - To hear Emil King tell it, the benefits of the 8,000-odd solar panels shimmering before him on an industrial lot in Washington D.C. go far beyond helping the U.S. capital city fight climate change.

The city-administered solar park was built on polluted land that had become an eyesore, and the power it produces has been used to halve the electricity bills of about 700 low-income local families, said King, a city environmental official.

"The community saw that they'd be getting money off their bills, but that it was also going to be about a vacant property getting some attention and getting cleaned up," he said.

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Solar projects like the Oxon Run Community Solar Farm reflect part of a growing push by cities across the United States to include lower-income communities that are increasingly seen as vital to achieving emissions goals.

In Washington's case, that means reaching 100% renewable energy by 2032.

Part of that target involves supplying solar power to 100,000 low-income households from city-subsidized community projects, using the new electricity source to reduce their energy bills.

Unlike traditional rooftop units meant for a single household or business, community solar broadly refers to installations in which none of the electricity is used onsite, instead being fed into the grid but often earmarked for "subscribed" users.

That arrangement sets them apart from utility-scale solar projects, while community projects are also typically far smaller, able to fit into a variety of sites.

"Community solar is the keystone element," said King, a program analyst with the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment.

"We do a lot of rooftop (units), but this is the most efficient way to get a lot of capacity built fairly quickly," he said, standing amid the ground-mounted solar modules that make up the city's largest community project to date – even as new ones are regularly brought online.

Democratizing electricity

Across the country, similar projects are seen as a key way to expand access to solar energy for lower-income residents or those for whom traditional installations do not make sense such as renters, people who do not own their roofs, and those with roofs unsuitable for solar installations.

"Community solar becomes this democratizing element for electric customers," said Jeff Cramer, chief executive of the trade group Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA), "especially those that have been most left out by the clean-energy revolution and the grid of the past."

As cities set ambitious renewable energy targets and with an unprecedented wave of federal funding set to start arriving this year, the initiative is picking up so much momentum in places like Washington that officials are grappling to find new sites.

"We're running out of space," King said.

Earlier this year, the federal government, which has a goal of increasing community solar output by 700% from 2020 to 2025, hosted a summit stating that it was community solar's "time to shine."

"We went from a handful of projects in 2015-16 to thousands around the country," Cramer said, amounting to nearly 5 gigawatts (GW) today.

The sector is currently growing by about 1 GW a year, equivalent to about 200,000 customers annually, and he expects that rate to jump in the coming years.

In January, the CCSA set a new target of providing community solar access to 10 million Americans by the end of the decade, or about 30 GW.

Community solar has no set definition, said Nate Hausman, who manages the clean energy markets program at the World Resources Institute, a think-tank.

"Unlike with rooftop solar, where it's clear what you're getting, subscriptions can be structured in different ways," he said.

Payments can come upfront or over time. Some projects are offered at a premium as a way to support clean energy, while others aim to provide savings to low-income customers.

Whatever the approach, they are likely to become increasingly important to satisfy cities and states' new sustainability goals.

"To reach the level of market penetration (cities) aim for, they're going to have to involve the low- and moderate-income markets. It will involve reaching beyond the standard customer base," Hausman said.

As in Washington, that is prompting local officials to look widely for potential sites, whether on roofs, parking lot canopies or on contaminated or other low-value land.

A community solar project in Washington D.C. in December 2022

A community solar project in Washington D.C. in December 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Carey L. Biron

A community solar project in Washington D.C. in December 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Carey L. Biron

Federal legislation passed last year will create new tax credits for community solar projects, including money earmarked for installations on affordable housing complexes and in former fossil fuel communities, Hausman said.

Twenty-two states have some kind of program to incentivize or facilitate community solar programs, according to the CCSA, including a California law adopted in September.

States that have not passed these laws will find it hard to tap the new federal funding, while those with such laws could experience a potentially chaotic gold rush, Hausman warned.

Neighborhood cooperatives

Community solar is not the only way to expand solar energy's customer base: neighbors are also increasingly banding together to reduce prices by buying in bulk and sharing the often complex research and preparations required.

Such neighborhood cooperatives tend to be focused on single-family homes and occasionally small businesses, said Ben Delman, communications director for Solar United Neighbors, which helps communities set up such groups in a dozen states.

The group also works on community solar, and recently launched what Delman says is a first-of-its-kind platform to help people find and join such projects in their areas.

The priority for both approaches is stabilizing residents.

"Energy burden is a huge challenge for low-income homeowners," Delman said. "They might own a home but not have much income coming in, so by cutting their energy bills, this is a way we can keep families in their homes."

For more than 30 years, Carmela Thomas has lived in the single-family home that she inherited from her father in Indianapolis, Indiana.

In 2020, she participated in a solar cooperative and a city program for low-income residents, and had solar panels installed on her detached garage - a step she took "primarily to save money".

The setup saved her more than $550 on electricity bills last year alone, she said.

But what started out as a way to reduce her spending now brings her wider satisfaction.

"As I gained more information, I realized that I'm doing my part to conserve energy and try to reverse global warming," she said.

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron; Editing by Helen Popper)

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