Earth Matters: Federal programs promoting 'community solar' need to be enhanced to reach everyone

Covered by Meteor Blades

Forty-five years ago, when I began work at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), we were keen on figuring out ways to get solar panels on as many residential rooftops as possible. Just as the solar panels President Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House roof and President Ronald Reagan later had removed, the panels at the time were thermal systems for hot water heating, not the electricity-generating photovoltaic panels now in place atop 3.7% of the rooftops of single-family homes in the United States (including the White House). The reason for thermal panels was simple. Back then, solar cells were prohibitively expensive. In 1978, the year SERI got rolling, the per watt cost of a solar cell was $44. Today, you can get them for as low as 20 cents per watt, cells that are far more efficient than their long ago predecessors. Other costs of solar installations have also fallen significantly.

But that still doesn’t put solar panels into financial reach of plenty of people who would benefit economically from having them, while incidentally benefiting the environment. A DOE report last year found that 5.7% of households with incomes of more than $150,000 have installed PV solar, compared with 1.1% of households with incomes less than $20,000. The surprising part is not how few but how many low-income households have gone solar.

Many low-income households, of course, are renters whose landlords aren’t interested in solar when tenants are paying the utility bill. And for those low-income people who do own their own homes, there are various problems, such as roofs being too small or structurally unsound for a solar array, shading from trees or buildings, and other issues. A 2015 NREL survey put the number of U.S. residences capable of hosting a rooftop solar installation at 49% of total U.S. housing. That leaves a lot of people who otherwise could go solar out of luck. And that’s a best-case scenario that includes rooftops that cannot handle the number of solar panels necessary to provide enough electricity for the average household.

Nearly two decades ago, a partial fix for this problem appeared in the form of the first “community solar”—small-scale PV installations directly owned by consumers or paid for via subscriptions to a third-party developer. Community solar can be much more accessible than individual solar arrays since it avoids problems associated with getting local approvals for rooftop arrays and the need for upfront capital. In its most democratic form, a neighborhood or two could band together to fund with a loan the design and construction of a community solar system supplying a few hundred customers who either own the system directly or subscribe to one. No additional money out-of-pocket for customers and lower electricity bills every month. What’s not to like?

By the end of 2022, 5.6 gigawatts of community solar had been installed in 41 states. A list of most of them can be seen here. Depending on how the count is done, that’s enough to provide electricity to 2.8 million to 4.2 million households. Nothing to sneeze at. The Solar Energy Industries Association forecasts another 6 gigawatts of community solar will come online in the next five years. That’s a lot, but those mildly encouraging numbers conceal a problem.

In the majority of cases, a community solar project requires applicants to have a minimum 700+ FICO credit score. Lenders won’t underwrite projects that don’t meet this requirement. Forty percent of Americans had a score less than 700 in 2021, according to FICO. No need to guess who usually gets left out of this direct means of equitably distributing solar electricity.

Engineer Utopia Hill, the CEO of Reactivate, a partnership between Invenergy and investment firm Lafayette Square in Illinois, is one of the people working to get more community solar into marginalized communities. As stated in the headline to Kari Lydersen’s lengthy article at Energy News Network, Hill has found that “bringing solar to low-income customers is a lot harder than you might think.” Since 2017, incentives for community solar are included under Illinois’ energy laws, including the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act and the Future Energy Jobs Act that created the state’s Solar for All program. But accessing these incentives and getting projects underway has been difficult.

For one thing, customers in marginalized communities are shy about the promises of such projects because they have in the past been the targets of scammers and deceptive predatory marketeers of electricity from alternative sources. Trust is essential to persuade people a community solar project is in their interest, and establishing that trust takes time.

Steph Speirs, the CEO of Solstice Power Technologies, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company founded by women of color, told Lydersen, “Community organizing is an underappreciated skill in the energy industry, but it is a skill that requires experience to do constructively and respectfully. When you work with under-resourced communities, trust is your most valuable currency. At Solstice we understand that we aren’t entitled to that trust. We have to earn it, and we can only move at the speed of trust.” She notes that Hill is working hard at that task.

An even bigger stumbling block to the community solar program created by Illinois’ 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act has seen the benefits going mostly to larger developers of fewer projects. They gobbled up state incentives so fast that many community solar projects were never built.

But the law was revamped in 2021, and last month Reactivate and Solstice, which is handling subscriptions, say three Solar for All projects designed for low- and moderate-income customers are now open for enrollment. When completed, they will save subscribers about $12 million over 20 years and generate electricity for about 1,200 households. Lydersen writes:

Although she had been involved in wind energy projects for a decade and a half by then, Hill calls the COVID-19 pandemic her “big awakening” that having a solar energy option is a way to protect public health and promote environmental justice. “I had a lot of friends who had various types of respiratory issues, but you don’t necessarily think about the correlation” with pollution, she noted. “During COVID, seeing people I cared about die because of those respiratory issues really struck a chord with me. Energy justice, and just transition, all started to come together.”

One aspect of that justice is getting people trained for clean energy jobs in environmental justice and low-income communities. If it’s really community solar, then people from the community ought to be involved at every stage. The Solar for All program offers extra incentives for solar constructed by women- and minority-owned firms and installers with diverse workforces. The trouble is, solar developers have found it difficult to connect with trainees. Hill said Reactivate is working to connect developers with solar job-training programs. “A lot of our time has been spent listening and building relationships and understanding from the various training providers who currently exist, even working on curriculum,” she said.

That seems like a problem that shouldn’t be too hard to figure out in the near term. But there are definitely hurdles to overcome. Some solar workers—installers, for instance—are paid less than someone of equal skills might earn in an equivalently skilled fossil fuel job and often are only temporary employees who must go from state to state to find work. But prospects for better, steadier green jobs are on the rise. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that the energy transition will require 9.1% more electricians by 2030. The Inflation Reduction Act has incentivized the training of more electricians with money for apprenticeship programs.

While solar installers are paid less than oil rig workers, the median salary in a green job is $76,530 a year. That is 31% more than the national median salary of $58,260, according PromoLeaf’s Green Jobs Report analysis. As Carolyn Fortuna points out:

While it’s important to ensure fossil fuel workers get a fair shake as their jobs slowly slip away, there are millions in marginalized communities who should get an ample slice of the training and the vast number of new jobs being created to handle the green transition. Done right, the spread of community solar can be a key element of this, with major benefits for the environment, for the economy, and for equity. But experience tells us that “done right” will require serious ongoing scrutiny and tweaking.

Across the nation, there is no denying that some people have been left out of previous solar programs that on paper may have looked like and been intended to be perfectly neutral but have played out quite differently on the ground. But much of the lack of solar adoption in marginalized communities is a consequence of the lingering legacy of old policies, sometimes very old policies whose very not-neutral creators had profoundly ill intentions spurred by racism.

Happily, the Biden administration has set high goals for environmental justice. However, declarations and implementations are two very different things. Reaching those goals (or even getting on a trajectory to reach them) in the face of the relentlessly obstinate Republican Party of No will be no small feat. The next time a reconciliation budget is on the table, it ought to include funding for an enhanced, more aggressive, sped-up community solar expansion.