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Community Solar Can Empower Low-Income Neighborhoods

low income solar
Disadvantaged communities can benefit tremendously from solar energy—not only to reduce electricity bills, but to improve equality and enhance quality of life.  With limited resources and a lack of economic stability, low-income communities are more susceptible to hardship resulting from climate change and extreme weather disasters. Poor neighborhoods tend to be located near heavily polluted areas—closer to coal plants and dangerous compounds that infiltrate the air they breathe.

Activist Bill Gallegos, a veteran who lives in California, says low-income communities of color get the worst of the fossil fuel infrastructure. “We get the freeways, we get the diesel trucks, we get the rail yards, we get the ports, the power plants, the oil refineries,” Gallegos tells Texas Climate News.

Low-income households also pay a larger percentage of their income on their electric bill—9.2 percent more than the average household, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“If we desire to create a truly sustainable future, then we must not alienate some people from access to renewable resources and clean living techniques,” stresses Melissa Giorgi, Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “If solar is to be a real contributor to a sustainable future, then innovation and investment must focus on improving equality rather than increasing divisions.”

Aside from improving the air quality of depressed communities, incorporating solar power can also stabilize energy prices and alleviate some of the pressure on low-income budgets. “Not only can solar become a more visible and lauded energy source by people outside of the ‘rich environmentalist’ circle, but it can also be a symbol of pride and self-sufficiency in neighborhoods historically left behind and considered dependent,” Giorgi said.

Many low-income individuals rent single-family and multi-family homes—a factor that disqualifies them from installing solar on their property. Enter: community solar. Because it doesn’t require a personal installation, community solar is ideal for tenants who want to reduce their electric bill.

Programs to Increase Solar Access for Low-Income Residents

The Colorado Community Solar Gardens Act (CCSGA) of 2010 makes solar energy available to more Coloradoans, and requires investor-owned utilities to reserve 5% of the community solar array for low-income subscribers. Unlike the other 95% of subscribers who may be required to purchase a minimum of four 250-watt panels, low-income customers can buy modest shares of power—sometimes as low as $10.

In August of 2013, Clean Energy Collective (CEC) launched a new program to help bring clean energy to disadvantaged communities. The Community Solar Low-Income Residential Program was created through a partnership between CEC and the Housing Authority of the City and County of Denver (DHA). Through the program, CEC will donate 5% of the clean energy produced by three of its Denver County community solar arrays to families in need. The program is expected to offset the electric bills of 35 families living in DHA housing.

“This is a great partnership with CEC; it demonstrates a creative way to bring environmentally friendly, low cost renewable energy to serve low-income residents,” said DHA Executive Director Ismael Guerrero. “DHA benefits because we don’t disrupt our buildings or daily operations and residents will receive a direct credit on their monthly bill, thus saving money every month.”

Besides its Denver County arrays, CEC donates 5% of all Xcel projects to low income residents throughout Colorado—about 250 kilowatts of solar energy.

Another organization, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), has been working with California stakeholders to develop a new program—CleanCARE—which piggybacks off the existing California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) program. CleanCARE would offer low-income utility customers a bill discount through renewable program shares, instead of the current 20% rate discount that CARE provides.

“It would essentially achieve the same effect as the CARE program, while additionally creating renewable assets that have long-term value to the ratepayers who fund the program,” writes Laurel Passera, Senior Renewables Analyst for IREC attorneys Keyes, Fox & Wiedman LLP. “And perhaps most importantly, it would provide a feasible route for low-income residents to participate in renewable energy programs in ways they currently cannot.”

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