Sunlight is free, but the gear that transforms it into electricity is pricey. For 134 low-income D.C. households this year, though, the Solar Advantage Plus Program will make a photovoltaic system as affordable as the rays that power it.
The program was the subject of a recent meeting at the La Casa community center on Mount Pleasant Street NW. The event was hosted by D.C. Solar United Neighborhoods (DC SUN), which began in 2007 as a Mount Pleasant cooperative but has since expanded citywide.
The nonprofit group is not directly involved in Solar Advantage Plus but promotes it and similar efforts.
“We’re dedicated to the idea that solar can be affordable and accessible for everyone in D.C.,” DC SUN Executive Director Anya Schoolman told the meeting’s attendees, who numbered about 50. She called low-income solar-power installation “a really awesome program. We want to see it get bigger and bigger.”
Schoolman was joined at the front of the room by Matthew Hodge, representing D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility (DC SEU), whose mission is to reduce energy use. He helped answer questions as people inspected the small photovoltaic panels that were passed through the crowd.
Funding a system through Solar Advantage Plus, like doing so without such assistance, involves a mix of cash, grants and tax credits. DC SUN estimates that a typical installation in the District costs about $10,000. About $4,000 of that can be covered by an up-front Solar Renewable Energy Credit payment, and an additional $3,000 by a 30 percent federal tax credit. Annual cost savings on an average individual electric bill are about $500.
And, Schoolman added, “we know solar’s getting cheaper. And electricity prices are going up.”
Funding for the $1.4 million low-income solar program is split 50-50 by the D.C. Department of the Environment and DC SEU, a contractor to DDOE. DC SEU is financed by a small monthly fee on city residents’ electricity and natural gas bills.
To qualify for free solar systems, households must not surpass income limits based on the number of people in the home, ranging from $31,327 (for one person) to $83,138 (for eight). Homeowners also need a roof that receives sufficient sunlight and enough taxable income to benefit from the federal tax credit. To be funded this year, the system must be installed by Sept. 30.
The system must be in place for at least five years and remain part of the house if the property is sold.
Eight private contractors are available to do the work, and each has slightly different requirements. Alternative Renewable Solutions, one of two contractors that sent a representative to the meeting, will not install a solar system on a roof more than 10 years old.
“You don’t want to put solar on a roof that’s falling apart,” Schoolman said, because it’s complicated to move the panels to make repairs.
All the contractors are for-profit businesses except GRID Alternatives, a California-founded organization that recently opened a mid-Atlantic office on Benning Road NE. It does solar installation for low-income residents only, and takes a “barn-raising” approach, using volunteers and job-trainees.
One meeting attendee wondered whether that might lead to a substandard job. “We’re very confident in the quality of our work,” said Rozina Kanchwala, the group’s outreach coordinator.
Other questions involved concerns about potential loss of sunlight to the shadows of pop-ups — solar rights legislation is coming, Schoolman said — and the complexity of a solar system.
“It’s one of the simplest pieces of technology you’re ever going to own,” Schoolman said. “It has no moving parts.”
Another issue was the possible merger of PEPCO with Exelon, a company that opposes net metering. (Net metering allows a solar household’s excess electricity production on sunny days to offset the power it buys at other times.) Schoolman said previously installed systems will not be adversely affected by any changes to the net metering policy. “If you go solar for free this summer, you’re golden,” she said.
After the meeting, Hodge said he wasn’t surprised at some people’s skepticism. “When you tell people you’re giving something away, there’s some trepidation,” he said. “But I explain that they’re paying for it anyway on their PEPCO bill.”
Interest has grown during the four months he’s been publicizing it, he said. “Getting the word out has been getting easier and easier.”
As of mid-May, 69 households had joined the low-income solar program. Asked whether getting to 134 would be hard, Hodge smiled. “I don’t think so,” he said.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.