Solar has the reputation of being only for the middle and upper classes, but a couple of new initiatives could help to bring solar energy to low income residents.
The dropping cost of solar over the last decade, coupled with advancements in solar cell efficiency, new solar financing options, and rising energy prices, continues to drive the adoption of renewable energy for homes and businesses, which is good news in the climate change arena. However, the cost of installing a solar array remains out of reach of many Americans, especially the ones who could most benefit from reduced energy costs. And renters and residents of subsidized housing have few to no options for renewable energy at home, except for opt-in clean energy programs through their local utilities (which are often higher priced than standard electric rates).
A new national program aims to change that, by helping to "increase access to solar energy for all Americans, in particular low- and moderate- income communities," as well as expanding solar job opportunities in the U.S.. Announced yesterday on the White House blog, this comprehensive set of solar goals was launched in Baltimore, which is also where another recent low-income solar initiative (from GRID Alternatives) was put into place.
The initiative has a wide-ranging set of components, including the expansion of community solar programs (which could greatly benefit both renters and those without adequate roof space for a solar array), installing 300 MW of renewable energy for federally subsidized housing, a collaborative effort between organizations in more than 20 states to put some 260 solar projects into play (including those which are targeted to low- and mid-income communities), and an estimated $520 million in "independent commitments" from a variety of sources (states, cities, impact investors, philanthropists) to move community solar forward and scale up both solar and energy efficiency initiatives for low-income households.
"The executive actions and private sector commitments that we are announcing today will help continue to scale up solar for all Americans, including those who are renters, lack the startup capital to invest in solar, or do not have adequate information on how to transition to solar energy." - White House
The full scope of this national solar initiative is much wider than can be covered here, but the details can be found on a fact sheet published on the WhiteHouse.gov site.
On the same day, Senator Bernie Sanders (Vermont), who is fast becoming a favorite candidate in the upcoming presidential race, announced the introduction of a proposed piece of legislation titled the "Low Income Solar Act of 2015," which would establish a $200 million loan and grant program through the U.S. Department of Energy for increasing access to solar energy for low-income families.
"While the cost of solar panels has gone down in recent years, it is still out of reach for millions of low-income families that need it the most. Families across this country struggle to pay electricity bills and access to solar energy can help reduce these costs." - Bernie Sanders
The legislation, if approved, would enable a range of new solar opportunities for low-income households and communities, including granting money to cover part of the cost of home solar arrays for qualifying families, loaning money to organizations that are working to increase access to community solar by low-income families, incentivizing the construction of community solar projects, and providing funding for solar workforce training and development. In addition, this proposal would also provide support to those organizations that are working to "advance policies in state and local governments that in turn improve low-income resident access to solar."
"While low-income families are the hardest hit by rising utility prices, they are also the hardest hit by the impacts of climate change. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the poor spend more than 60 percent of their income on basic necessities including electricity and food, compared to less than 45 percent for wealthy families. Helping low-income families use solar power addresses both of these issues." - Sanders
This proposed legislation is right in line with Sanders' stance on both climate change and supporting the low- and middle-class communities, and although the overall environmental benefits of residential solar on low-income households might be just a drop in the bucket when compared to the climate impacts of fossil fuel energy use in industry, it certainly seems like a great starting point for a sensible and accessible national renewable energy approach.
The full text of the bill is available as a PDF download at the bottom of this page on Sanders' website.
[UPDATE: If you're in favor of Sen. Sanders' Low Income Solar Act, you can sign your name to a petition in favor of it here.]