The Great Social Solar Divide

on October 22, 2014 at 12:00 PM
kate solar1

Credit GRID Alternatives

From a rooftop in sunny California, a Breaking Energy writer learns about the need for a national solar policy targeting low-income families.

The sun was rising quickly as I drove down I-580 to a part of Oakland that has yet to attract a significant influx of Silicon Valley’s high-tech workers and the gentrification that follows.  I had nerves, the kind you get on the first day of a new job.  As I approached my destination, I saw a well-kept, one-story yellow bungalow with metal bars covering the windows and a relatively flat roof.

I was there as part of a small crew of volunteers and full-time staff working for GRID Alternatives, a non-profit organization that installs solar panels on low-income homes, among other things. The mission that day was serious, the safety requirements strictly enforced, but the mood jovial. After lathering up on sunscreen, I put on my harness and hardhat, climbed up the ladder, and was strapped onto the roof.  I spent the day squinting in the California sun as I installed solar panels, learned to bend conduit and ran cables. Over the next few weeks of volunteering, I’d learn the ins-and-outs of residential solar installations. For someone who has trouble putting together an IKEA bookshelf, this was remarkable progress.

The Growing Divide

Installations of solar PV panels in the US are growing at an astounding pace (a 485% growth rate between 2010-2013), but household penetration levels are still low. While prices are dropping fast and large players in the market find new ways to creatively finance solar, most of these programs do little for low-income families, who spend over twice the proportion of their total income on energy bills than the average American. Compounding the situation, they are also more likely to live near polluting power plants. “The utility costs for low-income folks are second only to mortgage and rent in terms of major monthly expenses,” said Erica Mackie, co-founder of GRID.That means the people who have the most to gain from clean energy and lower electric bills are the least likely to gain access to those benefits.

“Solar is an amazing technology and arguably, the people who need it most have the least access to it,” said Julian Foley, communications manager for GRID Alternatives.

In my talks with GRID Alternatives, the term “electrical divide” was used often. As far as I can tell, it’s a concept that was coined by the Center for American Progress, describing the increasing costs low-income families will face as part of the utility death spiral (the concept where falling barriers to distributed generation coupled with rising electric bills will cause consumers to defect from the grid, leaving a smaller population to pay for the costs of maintaining the infrastructure – hence the spiral). But that analysis goes a step beyond the current issue; low-income families have almost no access to the solar market.

Solar Policies

Ignoring the electrical divide, low-income residents can benefit from access to clean sources of energy and lower utility bills. “The primary support for solar at the federal level is the investment tax credit, and by and large … low-income families are not able to take advantage of that tax credit. We need a national low-income solar policy to fill in the gaps where the mainstream market is leaving [them] behind,” said Mackie. 

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The author installing solar panels on a roof in Oakland, CA. Credit Author/Breaking Energy

Despite the rapid uptake in residential solar, much of the market is still driven by government incentives, according to a report by Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. “In many cases the support for solar is paid for by rate payers, and low-income families are rate-payers. So if they are paying into whatever a state or a local city is funding their energy policies with, they should be able to reap those benefits,” said Mackie.

“When you are building energy policy, if nobody is asking the question of how low-income families are going to benefit, you can pretty much be sure they won’t,” said Erica Mackie.

GRID Alternatives works to make solar accessible to low-income communities; in practical terms, it means offering solar at no-cost or low-cost to qualifying families. Doing so means raising significant funding or obtaining it through the government programs. The organization’s largest presence is in California, and that’s not an accident. The California Solar Initiative is not only driving solar for middle and upper income families, but it established $216 million for low-income households through two programs: Multi-family Affordable Solar Homes (MASH) and Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH). GRID Alternatives is able to tap into a pot of $108.34 million reserved for SASH to finance its programs (a program GRID administers for the state). That funding started running out (it’s doled out between the three major investor-owned utilities in California), for example funds in San Diego are tapped out. The programs were renewed last year until 2021 for another $108 million.

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Credit Author/Breaking Energy

According to GRID Alternatives, few states have policies in place to encourage low-income residents to go solar, but that may be changing. Many states are looking to California as an example, and GRID is taking an advisory role where it can, though the organization says its “policy agnostic” as long as “low-income families can access the technology and reap the benefits.” It’s recently started working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on President Obama’s target to get 100MW of solar on low-income housing.

The problem is it’s a piecemeal approach; no national strategy exists. That’s where GRID’s newly opened Washington DC office comes into play. But  the group faces a long battle. Still, Mackie’s words ring clear: “When you are building energy policy, if nobody is asking the question of how low-income families are going to benefit, you can pretty much be sure they won’t.”

Solar Ambassadors

On my first day of volunteering with GRID, the homeowner was around, occasionally chatting with the staff and volunteers, offering us snacks and water. But for the most part, I heard him talking to his neighbors.  Though I didn’t know his stance before that day, he was a vocal proponent and salesman for solar. He spoke enthusiastically of the state’s policies to an inquisitive neighbor, advising her to get solar panels on her house too. This is the way GRID Alternatives operates, relying heavily on word-of-mouth.

“Solar in low-income communities is not common. It’s not like you look next door and see solar panels,” said GRID’s communications manager Foley. The SASH program has a laundry list of conditions participants must meet, including strict income requirements. These ensure that the benefits go to low-income families even if the home is sold.

And while solar may still be rare in low-income neighborhoods, even in California where the policies encourage it, the market is substantial. GRID says that nationwide, there are 22 million low-income, owner occupied homes. And that means a lot of potential for solar. Now if there was just a national policy in place to encourage it.

* GRID Alternatives had installed solar PV panels at 4,661 homes at the time of writing, a total of 13,732kW and an estimated lifetime savings of $116.4 million.