Solar Tribune

New Solar Opportunities Are Benefiting Lower-Income Families


Solar panels are no longer just a luxury item.

As the American solar industry waits anxiously to see if President Trump levies a tariff on Chinese solar panels, new solar installations continue to go up at a steady pace. Despite uncertainty on how the trade decision may effect panel prices in the years to come, both large-scale solar farms and indie rooftop solar projects just keep chugging along. One segment of the solar market that has been growing steadily is among lower-income residents and the organizations that address their needs. Once considered a luxury item for environmentally-conscious early adopters, more and more people in lower income brackets are discovering opportunities to take advantage of solar energy’s benefits, and cash-strapped charities are reducing their overhead costs through new solar programs.

NAACP Celebrates MLK Day with launch of National Solar Equity Initiative

In observance of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday and National Day of Service, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)  launched its new partnership, the Solar Equity Initiative in Los Angeles at The Jenesse Center, the headquarters for a nationally recognized non-profit domestic violence prevention and intervention organization. Lifetime financial savings for the Jenesse Center are estimated to be approximately $48,825, which will enable Jenesse to infuse more funds into continuing its 35 years of services.

According to the NAACP, the project is a civil rights economic and environmental justice initiative designed to connect 30+ communities of color and low-income communities across the nation with solar energy infrastructure for homes and community centers, as well as skills training for solar jobs, all supported by strengthened solar equity policies. The NAACP has made a year-long commitment to provide solar job skills training to 100 individuals, installation of solar panels on 20 households and ten community centers, and strengthen equity in solar access policies in at least five states across the country.

“Underserved communities cannot be left behind in a clean energy transition,” said NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson. “Clean energy is a fundamental civil right which must be available to all, within the framework of a just transition.”

Along with the NAACP, partners in the Solar Equity Initiative include GRID Alternatives, the Solar Energy Industries Association, Sunrun, United Methodist Women, Vote Solar, and others.

photo: Everyday Energy

New California Program for Low-Income Solar

According to, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has approved the creation of the Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) program, which will allocate $1 billion for rooftop solar installation on low-income homes over the next ten years. Funds will be drawn from a statewide greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program and will provide $100 million in annual solar installation incentives for the owners of affordable multifamily buildings.

Framework for the program was created by the state legislature in 2015 and is now ready for implementation. SOMAH was designed to help California meet its climate goals, help reduce energy bills for low-income residents and ensure that green energy infrastructure isn’t just for the wealthy.

A high credit score is no longer a prerequisite for solar

A recent Bloomberg article showcases a company that is achieving major gains in the solar installation market by taking on new customers that other solar installers might reject. PosiGen LLC works with lower-income customers that other companies reject, but they have had just 47 defaults out of almost 13,000 installations. At a default rate of only 0.4 percent, PosiGens low-income customers have a track record that compares positively to other companies that only serve upper-income clients.

“We want the people on disability, the people living paycheck to paycheck,” Executive Officer Thomas Neyhart told Bloomberg. “They’re the ones who can benefit the most from $50 off their monthly utility bill.” Neyhart expects to add as many as 3,000 homes this year.

PosiGen captured 80 percent of Louisiana’s rooftop solar market by helping rebuild blighted parts of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The firm has since expanded to Connecticut, Minnesota and New Jersey.

New Hampshire Nonprofit launches Solar Shares

In an article by Annie Ropeik, New Hampshire Public Radio reports that the city of Plymouth will be home to the state’s first small solar panel arrays designed to help low-income families. A new program, Solar Shares, has raised more $115,000 for the projects and plans to break ground on the first one in the spring.

Sandra Jones co-directs the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative, which created Solar Shares. She says they plan to choose about 30 low-income families to share the renewable energy credits from their first three arrays. That will amount to about a $25 monthly savings.

“We like the idea that it’s going to give access to solar energy for a population that really can’t afford it,” Jones says. “It’s also going to obviously help the environment … and provide more local energy on the grid.”

The New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, which serves residents in the area, is helping fund the project and will distribute the renewable energy credits the arrays generate.

“I think one of the misconceptions is that folks that can’t afford solar aren’t thinking about it, and it’s not true,” said Jones. “They’re hearing about it, they’re hearing about the savings from their neighbors, and they’re the folks that need the energy savings the most.”

The array near Common Man will go on donated land off Route 3. Jones says it will double as a picnic area, and may include solar panels decorated with art by local students that shade the picnic tables.

Puget Sound Energy funds solar projects for local charities

Puget Sound Energy (PSE) announced recently that they will be giving five organizations in its service area the gift of solar energy. The recipients are organizations that are either food distribution centers or emergency warming shelters in their respective communities.

PSE is donating $350,000 to install solar panels at Northwest Harvest in Kent, Community Action of Skagit County, Island Senior Resources, Salvation Army Bremerton and the Upper Kittitas County Senior Center. All five projects will be installed by June.

“Whether it’s providing food or emergency shelter, the organizations that were selected have a history of helping people in their communities, which is aligned with what’s important to PSE,” said Bob Stolarski, PSE director of Customer Energy Management & Renewables. “We’re excited that funding these solar projects will help reduce the energy costs for our recipients, so they can put more money towards supporting their core mission while helping to reduce their carbon footprint.”

The grants will allow each organization to meet at least 10 percent of their load with solar energy. Not only will these organizations receive energy savings but eight years of renewable energy production incentive payments from the state.

“Northwest Harvest is very appreciative of this grant from PSE,” said Thomas Reynolds, Northwest Harvest’s CEO. “We know that for every dollar we can save in keeping our lights on and our food cold, is an extra dollar that goes toward helping feed those in our community who are suffering from hunger.”

A little solar power is a big improvement for Berkeley homeless

Sam Clune was a mortgage broker until he lost his home in Albany, New York, in 2009. He migrated to California in a camper outfitted with solar panels, until he lost the van due to expired smog permits. Now Clune lives in a homeless camp in Aquatic Park in Berkeley. Despite the difficult circumstances, Clune has used his knowledge of solar tech to help his fellow homeless residents.

Sam Clune’s dog, Trouble, watches him clean the solar panels he installed at his homeless camp, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, in Emeryville, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

According to the San Jose Mercury News, Clune has installed donated solar panels at three different homeless encampments in Berkeley.

“It allows you to charge your phone and your computer,” Clune said of the 915-watt setup at Aquatic Park, consisting of three solar panels, a controller, four golf cart batteries and lots of wiring — “Here every tent has an extension cord running to it,” he said.

“The big difference is not what you can do with electricity. It’s what you do not have to do,” Clune said. “Instead of sitting in a coffee shop for three hours a day charging stuff, building your whole day around it, we can now accomplish something else with our day.”

Over at the Adeline Street camp, resident Karma Bear seconded Clune’s observation:

“Instead of going to the library, where there are 90 homeless people trying to charge their phones at one time, we can charge up as many as we need here, up to 10 or 12 a day,” Bear said.

By providing electricity for charging devices, Clune is helping residents to get access to employment information, health resources, and emergency services.

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