The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) recently released a report entitled Solar For All: What Utilities Can Do Right Now to Bring Solar Within Reach for Everyday Folks. SACE supports the report, and we are working hard with SELC and other allies to help make solar more accessible for low-to-moderate income (LMI) families across the Southeast.
LMI utility customers in the Southeast have so far been underserved by the existing programs and businesses that help people harness clean solar energy. To solve this inequity, the Solar For All report calls for diverse financing options, investment in community solar projects, and leveraging existing funding sources to expand access to solar.
Financing, in particular, can play a big role in making solar available for everyone. While some solar installers provide rooftop leasing and power purchase agreements that mitigate upfront costs, these installers typically require a minimum credit score that excludes many LMI customers. A leading solution to the lack of LMI access to existing financing options is utility-sponsored on-bill financing, which allows customers to repay the cost of their solar installation through a charge on their monthly utility bills. On-bill financing is also a great solution for helping people make their homes more energy efficient, and could be combined with solar for an even bigger impact. Whether financing energy efficiency or solar installations, a critical feature of a fair and accessible on-bill financing program is to allow customers to qualify based on their utility bill payment history, rather than credit scores. LMI individuals often have better utility bill payment records than credit scores, and utility bill payment is a better indicator of default risk in an on-bill financing program anyway (and default rates have been extremely low).
Community solar is a great opportunity to expand access to solar in general, but particularly for LMI communities. In a previous report on community solar released by SELC, SACE, Sierra Club, and Appalachian Voices, we noted that about 75 percent of homes are unsuitable for rooftop solar due to structural, shading and other constraints. To make community solar work for LMI customers, the Solar For All report recommends creating a carve-out for LMI participation, avoiding upfront costs, allowing on-bill financing, reserving siting for underserved communities, incorporating job training, and taking advantage of additional savings opportunities, such as demand response.
As the Solar For All report details, there are several existing funding sources that can be utilized to help expand access to solar, including federal, state and local energy assistance funding. Rural electric cooperatives have a number of lucrative funding opportunities through the USDA, but utilities everywhere could potentially leverage federal funding as well. The Obama Administration has recently taken steps to help LMI communities access solar, including allocating two percent of funds in the low-income Weatherization Assistance Program to low-income solar, as well as launching a new initiative that will triple the solar capacity installed on federally subsidized housing, make it easier to access financing, and help renters gain access to solar.
All of these opportunities should be strongly considered by Southeastern utilities and their regulators, and SACE will continue to work with our allies to push states and utilities to expand access to solar to all customers.