Reports focus on low-income solar in the United States

The increasing disparity between wealth and poverty in the United States is an issue that has been commanding rising attention, and this extends to the solar industry. Solar is seen as part of a conscious choice by many Americans to move towards a sustainable lifestyle, but many are also keenly aware that this is often a choice that only those on the upper end of the income spectrum have been able to afford.

Over the last week two reports have been published which focus on bringing the benefits of solar to a broader spectrum of Americans. “There are many effective policy tools for supporting solar adoption among consumers at large, and nearly all of them help expand low-income access to solar power to some extent,” reads the executive summary of the Low Income Solar Policy Guide. “However, fully enabling low-income solar participation requires policies and programs that are specifically designed to address the unique barriers faced by these communities.”

As a report and accompanying website, ?Low Income Solar Policy Guide was put out yesterday by GRID Alternatives, Vote Solar Initiative and the Center for Social Inclusion. The report examines existing low-income solar policies in a number of leading markets including California, New York and Massachusetts, looking at policies for single-family solar, multi-family buildings, community solar and workforce development.

The policy landscape covered by the report includes compensation mechanisms such as net metering, direct incentives, policies to ease financing and consumer protections. Investment policies may be particularly important. “The investment required to go solar remains a significant barrier for the families who most need relief from rising bills – those who struggle to make ends meet every month,” notes the report.

It also finds that existing policies such as the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and many state tax credits cannot be utilized by low-income individuals and households because they lack the necessary tax burden.

A few days before Low Income Solar Policy Guide was published, Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) put out a report which dives deeper into policy, with a focus on a broader set of homeowners but a narrower market segment. IREC’s Shared Renewable Energy for Low- to Moderate-Income Consumers: Policy Guidelines and Model Provisions also looks at barriers to deployment, this time for households that make up to 120% of the median income in their area, and with a specific focus on shared renewables.

"Shared renewable energy programs have tremendous potential to expand access and provide meaningful benefits to low- and moderate-income customers," explains Sara Baldwin Auck, IREC’s regulatory program director. "Incorporating many perspectives – including from LMI customer advocates, environmental and environmental justice advocates – these guidelines take into account low- and moderate-income customer realities and offer workable solutions."

IREC also notes that lack of access to capital and insufficient credit are significant barriers for low- and moderate-income homeowners. Additionally, the report notes that many such homeowners simply don’t know about shared solar, noting language barriers, lack of internet access, and constraints on resources and time as barriers to awareness of what shared renewable energy programs and associated financing options are available.

It also finds that while many low- and moderate-income customers groups are often grouped together that different program design approaches may be necessary to reach the range of customers that this term represents.??Finally, IREC finds that some barriers to deployment are not fixable with program design, because they are outside the context of such programs.

Again, poverty is the problem, but for at least some of America’s poor, solar can be a solution.