Posted on Thursday October 15, 2015
Often located near congested highways, toxic waste sites and dirty factories, low-income communities face greater exposure to environmental hazards. Inhaling these harmful chemicals and pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide leaves low-income residents more susceptible to asthma and heart attacks.
One way to fight this environmental injustice is to increase the deployment of clean energy sources within these communities. Distributed energy such as rooftop solar generates emission-free electricity while reducing electric bills, resulting in cleaner air and financial savings for low-income households. But many of these residents live in subsidized housing or lack the financial ability to have solar installed on their rooftop (if they own their home).
There is one solution, however, that enables local residents to benefit from solar energy without the hassle of an on-site system: community solar. Constructed within the communities they serve, these centralized solar facilities allow renters, businesses, homeowners and municipalities to share the clean energy output and reduce their electricity bills.
“Even though solar is broadly accessible to more Americans, we’re still leaving out a chunk of citizens in this country because of home ownership issues and multi-family housing issues,” said Minh Le, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Energy Technologies Office. “Community-shared solar offers the potential to serve the low-and-moderate income community who are generally locked out of solar.”
Serving a Wider Range of Low-Income Households
GRID Alternatives is a nonprofit organization that installs solar photovoltaic systems for low-income families across the U.S. and Nicaragua. After opening offices in Colorado in 2012, the nonprofit realized that many needy residents had rooftops that were shaded or otherwise unfit for solar panels. “We were only able to reach about one in 10 clients who applied to our residential program initially,” said GRID’s Development Director, Kristina Sickles. “So we started exploring ways to expand our program’s reach and serve a wider range of people.”
With community solar legislation already in place, Colorado was ideal for a community solar pilot program. “It was a really great opportunity to start expanding and diversifying GRID’s project portfolio and experience,” Sickles said. The nonprofit developed the nation’s first community solar array to exclusively benefit underserved communities through a partnership with Grand Valley Power. The 29 kilowatt (kW) facility in Mesa County can serve eight qualifying families in the utility’s service territory. “We connect with various partners to identify those people who struggle to pay their bills and have expressed a sincere interest in wanting access to renewable energy,” Sickles said.
Job Training Opportunities and Education
The low-income families who subscribe to GRID’s community solar garden must contribute 16 hours of sweat equity—an experience that can provide these individuals with a new set of skills and unveil potential career paths. “A vast majority of [solar] employers are really looking for people that have professional, hands-on experience. For somebody who is entry level, getting that experience can be a problem,” Sickles said. “So GRID offers that opportunity.”
The community solar project also enables the nonprofit to engage with disadvantaged residents. GRID staff and volunteers talk with the low-income families about energy efficiency and how their actions impact the environment. “Bringing people into that conversation so they can better understand how their behaviors actually matter can have a huge long-term impact on a community,” Sickles said.
GRID Alternatives expects the participating families to see their electric bill drop by about 50 percent, thanks to the sun’s energy. “They get the financial benefits and the savings, and of course that is very exciting for the families,” Sickles said. “But they also fully embrace the idea that they have access to clean, renewable energy. They really take that in.”
A Federal Push to Make Solar Available for All
In July of 2015, the Obama Administration announced a new initiative to increase solar access for all Americans, with a focus on serving low- and middle-income communities, including individuals who rent their homes.
The plan establishes the National Community Solar Partnership that pledges to install 300 megawatts of solar and other renewable sources in federally subsidized housing by the year 2020. Headed by the DOE, the partnership is a collaborative effort between various federal agencies, major solar states, and private sector players (such as First Solar).
“This offers an opportunity to lower energy costs for some of our neediest citizens,” Le said. “I want to make sure that the people who push or adopt [community solar] models are really doing it in order to benefit the communities that they’re trying to serve.”
For nonprofits and other organizations that are interested in starting their own community solar program but aren’t sure where to begin, the Community Solar Hub provides information, tools, case studies and other essential documents as a starting point.
Join the campaign to bring community solar to every neighborhood in the nation. Gain access to the tools that will make your projects a success. Share the details of your developments for others to see and repeat your achievements. Contribute to your community by providing the choice of clean and affordable electricity to everyone.