This story has been updated.
The White House Tuesday announced an array of new measures to extend access to the most rapidly growing source of U.S. energy — solar — to a much broader group of Americans, including low-income communities and individuals who rent, rather than owning their own homes.
That includes a new initiative to ramp up so-called “community solar” projects across the country — programs in which one solar installation supplies energy to multiple different homes or individuals – with a focus on serving low- and middle- income Americans. It also includes a pledge to install a total of 300 megawatts of solar and other renewables in federally subsidized housing developments by the year 2020 (each megawatt represents roughly enough solar to power 164 homes).
The announcements came just a week after the administration pledged, in a joint agreement with Brazil, that the United States will get 20 percent of its total electricity from renewable sources by the year 2030 — a target that would require tripling renewables beyond current levels.
“It’s very important not only that we achieve that goal, but how we get there as well,” noted Obama senior adviser Brian Deese on a media call. “We know there are significant challenges in the scope and geographic reach of solar.”
More and more voices of late are airing concerns about equal access to solar energy. “The rapid decline of solar panel costs in recent years has ushered in a solar boom that has not spread uniformly across the spectrum of U.S. household incomes,” notes a recent paper from the George Washington University Solar Institute. “Despite being more vulnerable to energy costs, lower income Americans have lagged behind more affluent households in adopting solar and realizing its numerous benefits.”
Chief among those benefits is lower electricity bills — something that would make a much bigger difference in the lives of lower-income Americans than of more affluent ones. But if you rent in an apartment building, or live in a multi-family home or building, you can’t put solar on your roof — you don’t own the roof. Meanwhile, those with lower income or savings also often can’t qualify for the advantageous financing deals that have played a key role in expanding solar installations.
The result is an increasingly conspicuous solar access gap. “The 49.1 million households that earn less than $40,000 of income per year make up 40 percent of all US households but only account for less than five percent of solar installations,” notes the George Washington University report. The White House itself estimates that close to 50 percent of U.S. homes and businesses are either renters or lack “adequate roof space to install solar systems.”
To change this situation, the array of initiatives announced Tuesday include both administrative actions and also moves by states, cities, and the private sector. The 300 megawatt goal, for instance, would greatly exceed a 2013 Obama pledge to install 100 megawatts of solar and other kinds of renewable energy in federally subsidized housing by 2020. That target has already been reached five years ahead of schedule, the White House said.
The new initiative also includes $520 million in pledges from states, localities, and the private sector to make new investments in community solar, focused on low-income communities, and 260 new projects by power companies, rural electric co-ops, and housing authorities to expand low-income and other forms of solar access.
The new National Community Solar Partnership, meanwhile, will be headed up by the Department of Energy and bring together numerous federal agencies, major states like New York and California, and private sector players like First Solar. It will work to grow community solar programs across the country, and comes even as the solar industry has focused on expanding its market beyond individuals who own their own homes and roofs.
SolarCity, the top U.S. installer, just weeks ago announced what it described as the nation’s largest community solar project — as many as 100 “solar gardens” in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that would allow renters, low-income families, and others to purchase part of the energy generated, and thus lower their bills.
It’s a growth area: According to a recent study by GTM Research, community solar will see 115 megawatts installed this year and more than 500 megawatts installed in 2020. Community solar will be “the most significant solar growth market for the United States,” the group finds.
In addition, while the White House had already announced a goal of training 75,000 solar workers by the year 2020, it also declared new initiatives on Tuesday to open up pathways into the solar workforce for lower income Americans. That includes a new AmeriCorps project to install solar in low-income communities and help less affluent Americans get jobs in the solar industry.
On the same day that the White House announced its new solar initiatives, Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also introduced legislation called the “Low Income Solar Act of 2015,” which would provide grants and loans, through the Department of Energy, to further facilitate the installation of solar projects for low-income Americans.
In sum, the new administration initiatives make at least two things clear. The first is that late in his second term, President Obama continues to roll out regular new initiatives to green the U.S. energy system and fight climate change. And rather than going through Congress, he’s using any tool at his disposal — including administrative actions and new public private partnerships — to make that happen.
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