Energy Dept. Tackles Challenge Of Rooftop Solar & Income Inequality

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Economic justice advocates are taking note that rooftop solar power deployment in the US has a taken on a racial tinge, with significantly more penetration in predominantly white neighborhoods. That’s a climate action issue as well, because it reveals that US policy makers are missing an important opportunity for accelerating solar adoption.

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at a report last month from the US Department of Energy, which takes on part — but not all — of the issue.

Significant Holes In US Rooftop Solar Deployment

Evidence of racial disparity in rooftop solar has been bubbling under the surface for several years. Back in 2015, Reuters noted that in the area where race, income, and home ownership intersect, low income homeowners don’t benefit from the tax credits that apply to rooftop solar, and there are significant barriers to rooftop solar access for apartment dwellers.

Last week, researchers from Tufts University and the University of California – Berkeley released a new study that adds an important dimension to the issue. Even controlling for income and home ownership, they found that PV deployment has penetrated more in white neighborhoods.

The study crunched numbers from Google’s Project Sunroof and from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. After adjusting for home ownership, they came up with these numbers:

…black- and Hispanic-majority census tracts have installed less rooftop PV compared to no-majority tracts by 61 percent and 45 percent, respectively, while white-majority census tracts installed 37 percent more.

Help Is On The Way (Partly)

As far as the income connection goes, solutions are emerging on several fronts. Nonprofits like GRID Alternatives are combining job training with rooftop solar programs for low income households. Housing providers that come under the federal HUD umbrella are also becoming more aware of financing opportunities and tools, and blockchain software could also provide an incentive for multi-family building owners to adopt solar.

Another helpful factor could be the US Department of Energy’s SolSmart program. The program was launched during the Obama Administration in 2016 with the goal of signing up 300 cities and towns to accelerate PV deployment in their communities. As of last spring, the project already had 158 enlistees and it is currently up to 200.

The Department Of Energy Has A Community Solar Plan

Community solar programs offer yet another pathway, though not necessarily a rooftop one. The latest development on that score is last month’s report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, under the title, “Design and Implementation of Community Solar Programs for Low- and Moderate- Income Customers.”

To be clear, the new report is focused on income inequality, but it may offer some insights for accelerating solar deployment beyond the color barrier.

Community solar programs are typically done on an opt-in basis, enabling local residents to get clean kilowatt hours at a premium. That’s a no-go for households on a budget.

In the report, NREL recognizes that “ensuring LMI [low and middle income] participation in community solar can be challenging.” The researchers identify several areas of focus:

Subscription models may need to be adjusted from the standard community solar offer. Programs may need to provide subsidies to LMI community solar subscribers to remove barriers related to up-front costs and to ensure the product provides immediate savings. Finally, those in charge of subscribing LMI community solar may need to find ways to work with LMI stakeholder groups to reach LMI customers.

Simply providing financial incentives is not sufficient to generate new subscriptions. The report also indicates that community outreach plays a vital role. The researchers suggest that community solar stakeholders take a page out of the energy efficiency toolkit:

Lessons from energy efficiency programs that target LMI customers indicate several LMI customer types are particularly difficult to reach, including renters, foreign language-speaking households, and others. For these reasons, piggy -backing on existing LMI programs or partnering with groups that are regularly interacting with the LMI community can be effective.

The report recommends that solar stakeholders partner with community organizations to engage customers and solicit personal referrals:

Some programs have relied on referrals of existing participants to spread the word. Often, this can be effective once a customer experiences real financial benefit from a program. Referrals from friends and relatives can provide a trusted source of information for LMI customers who may be leery of third-party marketing efforts. Referrals have been shown to be a successful way of acquiring residential PV customers…

In this regard it’s worth noting that a community outreach requirement is part of SolSmart (btw SolSmart is run by The Solar Foundation and funded by the US Department of Energy).

Rooftop Solar Is Still A Social Equity Issue

Still another pathway for non-rooftop solar adoption is community choice aggregation. These programs are only available in a handful of states, but they are rapidly growing in popularity. Basically they enable local policymakers to negotiate for more renewable energy with their utility.

Like community solar, these programs require ratepayers to opt in. The new NREL report could provide some useful advice on that score.

The falling cost of solar power will eventually make the issue moot in many communities, but the challenges to social equity will remain.

In a rooftop PV deployment study last April, NREL noted that rooftop solar provides benefits beyond cost, including “reduced energy burden, increased resilience, and hedge against electricity rate changes.”

CleanTechnica is reaching out to GRID alternatives for more insights into the full advantages of rooftop solar, so stay tuned for more on that score.

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Image (cropped): US Department of Housing and Urban Development

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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