Bridging The Solar Energy Gap Through Federal Assistance Programs

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NREL Supported the Development of New U.S. Department of Energy Resources to Expand the Reach of Solar Energy Through Assistance Funds for Low-Income Households

Solar Deployment Through WAP and LIHEAP

 

NREL researchers helped develop resources for program implementers to assess which solar implementation pathways to pursue, including rooftop solar, community solar, solar water heaters, and intergovernmental program partnerships. Illustration by NREL

The number of residential solar photovoltaics (PV) installations continues to increase across the United States. But that increase is slower for low-income households, who made up 23% of solar adopters as of 2022.

A new technical report and other resources developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) aim to help state and local organizations address the PV access gap.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) offer energy efficiency services to low-income households through state, territory, and Tribal governments. WAP provides free weatherization services to approximately 30,000 households every year, and that number is expected to increase due to the $3.5 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding dedicated to the program. LIHEAP provides billions of dollars for states, Tribes, and territories to reduce energy-related costs for low-income residents annually through bill assistance, and states can leverage LIHEAP funds for energy efficiency and weatherization.

In 2023, both programs issued updated guidance for states interested in including solar PV in WAP and LIHEAP services. Now, the number of jurisdictions that have authorized solar PV access through WAP and LIHEAP is growing, rising from only eight jurisdictions with solar implementation approval in 2022 to 22 jurisdictions in 2024. This includes nine with WAP approval, six with LIHEAP approval, and seven with approval through both programs.

Forging Pathways to Solar Energy

“WAP and LIHEAP implementers seeking to add solar PV to their programs do not need to reinvent the wheel,” said Juliana Williams, NREL weatherization lead. “Lessons from early adopters can help them make educated decisions about how to proceed.

Williams and other NREL researchers outlined options for state and local implementers in a recent technical report, Solar Pathways in Federal Energy Assistance Programs: Expanding the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). The report serves as the foundation for a variety of new online resources available for WAP and LIHEAP implementers.

In a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office, NREL researchers analyzed LIHEAP and WAP annual plans, surveyed LIHEAP grant recipients and WAP grantees about challenges in implementing solar, and conducted interviews and workshops with WAP and LIHEAP program administrators. As a result, they identified six primary pathways that administrators used to incorporate solar into LIHEAP and WAP plans, including:

  • Implementing rooftop solar as an eligible weatherization measure in either WAP or LIHEAP
  • Using LIHEAP funds for community solar subscriptions, to pay client solar bills, or to repair or replace existing rooftop solar systems
  • Using LIHEAP or WAP infrastructure for external solar program intake.

“It’s important to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all model for solar,” said Jenna Harmon, an NREL researcher. “Different policy environments require different approaches to be successful. For example, in some locations, community solar might be a better fit for the residents than rooftop solar.”

The report also identifies the most common challenges with including solar in WAP and LIHEAP, including limited funding to cover the full costs of solar installation and limited staff capacity to develop new initiatives in the programs. NREL researchers found that to address these challenges, partnerships with utilities, solar installers, community solar organizations, other state agencies, and subgrantees are key. These partnerships can bolster capacity and, in some cases, bring in additional funding. The report also notes that successful programs may require trust building and solar energy education in low-income communities.

Giving WAP and LIHEAP Implementers the Tools To Succeed With Solar

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Pathways in WAP and LIHEAP Decision Guide can help WAP and LIHEAP implementers identify which pathway(s) are best for their communities. The guide provides a brief overview of relevant policies and pathways for implementing solar in each program. The decision guide is complemented by a page answering frequently asked questions and a solar implementation toolkit that compiles procurement, technical, and implementation resources.

Four new case studies were developed from the research in the technical report. They provide examples of successful pathways to solar energy development for LIHEAP grant recipients and WAP grantees, offering solutions in solar implementation from across the United States and its territories:

“We recognize how important it is for low-income Coloradans to have access to solar to ease their energy cost burden, while also contributing to the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from electricity,” said Colorado’s WAP director, Stephanie Insinna-Sahondo, who helped provide information for the Colorado case study. “With over 800 no-cost rooftop solar installations since 2018, we are proud to have been the first state in the nation to offer rooftop solar to low-income residents through our WAP program and are excited to see so many other states following our lead.”

Also supported by the Solar Energy Technologies Office, NREL developed six new solar-energy equity layers for the State and Local Planning for Energy Platform to help low-to-moderate-income communities understand what solar options are best for them. The new low-to-moderate-income layers include state-, county-, and tract-level data for ground-mount and rooftop residential solar system potential, demographic profiles, and solar offsetable residential energy consumption—the residential annual electricity consumption that could be offset with behind-the-meter distributed PV. These layers offer breakdowns by income level, tenancy (owner or renter), and building types (single-family or multifamily).

From NREL’s survey of state and local WAP and LIHEAP organizations, many respondents reported interest in including solar energy in these programs. As solar energy development continues to grow across the country, these programs can help ensure that access and benefits are available to low-income communities.

Dive into the report, case studies, and additional resources on energy.gov, and explore other energy planning offerings from the State and Local Energy Planning for Energy Platform.

By Julia Medeiros Coad, NREL.


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