How cities are helping low- and moderate-income households install solar with Solarize campaigns
Residential solar has grown tremendously over the past decade, increasing from an installed capacity of just 1.4 GW in 2012 to 23.2 GW in 2021. Solar is also becoming more accessible: national data shows that the average income level of solar adopters is declining. However, despite this increase in solar for all income levels, recent census-level data shows that structural inequalities, including racial diversity and education levels, continue to hinder equitable adoption at the local level.
With support from the recent climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, local governments have an opportunity to address this solar equity gap by launching inclusive “Solarize,” or community bulk-purchasing, campaigns. When structured equitably, these campaigns can help low- and moderate-income (LMI) homeowners access solar by reducing costs and addressing marketing and outreach barriers. Key inclusive elements include partnering with local community-based organizations (CBOs) for decision-making and tailored community outreach, creating LMI-specific incentives, and using a community-driven installer selection process.
In 2021 and 2022, RMI supported over 20 local governments across the United States in planning and launching inclusive Solarize campaigns. In total, these campaigns helped nearly 1,200 households install more than 10 MW of residential solar. These installations are estimated to save households over $8 million and avoid over 106,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide over their 25-year lifespan, equivalent to planting over 1.76 million trees. Around 65% of these installations occurred in low-, moderate-, or middle-income neighborhoods (defined as <120 percent area median income), compared with the national average of 43%.
To help other local governments launch equity-focused Solarize campaigns in their own communities, we have compiled key takeaways and success stories from the communities that participated in RMI’s Solarize Cohort. Additionally, we created a six-step guide with accompanying resources and templates to walk communities through the full process of running a Solarize campaign.
Form Strong Community Partnerships to Drive Greater Local Participation
Inclusive campaigns are overwhelmingly based on strong partnerships with both national Solarize experts and community-level organizations. Selecting a national Solarize expert to lead a community campaign, such as Solar Crowdsource (SCS) or Solar United Neighbors (SUN), can bring decades of industry experience, remove potential governmental procurement barriers, and often accelerate campaign timelines. CBOs are also critical partners for all campaigns, as they are best positioned to make key campaign decisions on behalf of the community and help drive local participation.
Several RMI-supported campaigns built strong partnership coalitions from the early development stage, bringing local perspectives to all stages of the process:
The 2022 Solarize OKC campaign included a steering committee of nearly 10 local organizations, including RestoreOKC and the Oklahoma Solar Association, to set equitable goals, create outreach strategies, and bring local perspectives to the installer selection process.
Secure Additional Funding to Reduce the Cost of Solar for LMI Residents
While Solarize campaign participants typically receive a 10–20% bulk purchasing discount, it is typically not enough to reduce the upfront cost barrier for many LMI households to install solar. To make their campaigns more inclusive, local governments should prioritize securing funding to provide further LMI solar discounts and partner with mission-aligned financial institutions for low-interest financing. These strategies enable LMI residents to receive immediate energy savings without taking on overly burdensome debt. Solarize campaign outreach can also be paired with community solar offerings to include renters or homeowners who are unable to install solar.
Several RMI-supported campaigns integrated financial solutions for LMI residents by funding LMI installations through local funds or federal grants, using unique financing models, and offering accessible solar loans:
The 2021 Solar for All NOLA campaign organization lead, PosiGen, used a unique financing model to leverage various funding to provide solar leases that cost less than a household’s solar bill savings.
The 2022 Solar Over Louisville campaign leveraged $100,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant Program funding to pay for low-income solar installations.
The 2022 Solarize Santa Fe campaign raised $50,000 through a private donor to create LMI incentives and partnered with the Northern New Mexico School Employees Federal Credit Union to offer public school families more affordable and accessible solar loans.
Identify Trusted Campaign Messengers to Reach Historically Disadvantaged Residents
Given historically inequitable solar marketing and outreach, predatory lending, and solar scams, inclusive Solarize campaigns must focus on building trust. Successful campaigns deliver education and outreach through trusted sources and use messaging that addresses the specific needs of marginalized communities. Having a mayor or other influential figures publicly support the campaign can be a particularly powerful tool in attracting earned media and reaching a wide audience. Asking trusted CBO partners to promote the campaign across their local network can also be key in reaching a priority demographic, such as LMI residents.
Many RMI-supported campaigns demonstrated the power of enlisting trusted campaign messengers, including neighboring communities, local climate advocates, public officials, and utilities:
The 2021 Solarize Atlanta campaign and 2021 Solarize Savannah campaign reached a broader audience with nearly 400 sign-ups by jointly launching their campaigns in parallel and partnering with local nonprofits Harambee House and Ayika Solutions to create their community outreach strategy.
The 2022 El Paso Solar Co-op worked with local nonprofits Eco El Paso and Sunrise El Paso to pair outreach for its campaign with advocacy for reducing utility solar fees, which prevent many LMI residents from cost-effectively benefiting from solar.
The 2021 St. Petersburg Solar Co-op leveraged a utility bill insert to reach a large number of residents and helped 70 households install solar.
Launch an Inclusive Solarize Campaign Today
To help other local governments run their own Solarize campaigns, RMI has released an Inclusive Solarize campaign guide. This toolkit includes a six-step guide with accompanying templates and resources to jumpstart an inclusive Solarize campaign in your community this year.
Please reach out to Jackie Lombardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Ryan Shea (email@example.com) for assistance or questions.
By Jackie Lombardi, Ryan Shea, © 2023 Rocky Mountain Institute. Published with permission. Originally posted on RMI.