Affordable Solar: Sunshine to the People in DC

Sunshine falls freely, spreading its blessings on rich and poor alike. Power derived from the sun, however, is far from free, as the solar panels and equipment needed to harvest that sunshine have a high upfront cost. To help remedy that situation, in 2013 Washington, DC passed the Community Renewables Energy Act, which aims to make affordable solar available to low-income people.

sunset 400x267 Affordable Solar: Sunshine to the People in DC“Solar had been thought of as something only the wealthy can achieve,” says Grant Klein, Program Manager at DC SUN. In recent years, new financial instruments and plummeting costs have changed that, making solar accessible to the middle class. “Still a huge gap remains when it comes to low income,” says Klein, largely due to limited credit.

Affordable Solar

The DC law aims to change that. Yet implementation takes time. In 2015, DC began the Solar Advantage Plus program, providing free solar arrays to 135 low-income houses, with another 130 scheduled to go up this year, according to Tommy Wells, Director of the Department of Energy and Environment. Overall, the city is investing $6 million this year and $6 to 10 million next year to provide solar for low-income households.

This is a start, but gaps remain, not only in the number of low-income houses with solar, but even more in providing solar to multi-family buildings. After all, the majority of low-income people rent.

DC is working to remedy this with a plan to provide solar for low-income renters. “At some point, we have to deal with people in multi-family buildings,” explains Wells, and the District plans to do so by leveraging other government programs and income tax credits and by engaging local communities.

Meanwhile, a few homeowners who had thought solar inaccessible are enjoying its benefits. Edwin Ammaker is one, a long-time resident with a home in Southeast DC. He saw a neighbor installing solar panels and found out that he might qualify. “It sounded too good to be true, free solar panels,” he exclaims.

Within a few months the city had found him eligible and installed his new panels. The DC Department of Energy and Environment “did all of the work—solar solutions, a contractor, the whole package put together.” For the past six months, Ammaker has found his electric bill shrunken from $180 a month to just $115.

While he appreciates the savings, Ammaker is also grateful for what solar means for the planet. “Quite honestly, being a father and grandfather I think about what kind of world we’re leaving for our kids,” he says. He feels good “knowing that my carbon footprint would be a little nicer to the planet. All of this technology here, all of these advances, why isn’t everyone doing it?”

Ammaker worries about the multiple dangers posed by fossil fuels. “This coal situation goes a lot further than anybody thinks,” he says, mentioning a train derailment in Anacostia Park where “the coal went into the river. That’s a hell of an impact.”

Ammaker’s environmental footprint used to be far higher, when he ran a trucking company and made enough to move to the suburbs. “I was in a larger house that was just eating me up,” he says. “Indian Head, Maryland, what everyone shoots for—high ceilings, propane gas, it was ridiculous, I kept thinking to myself how can people do this.”

In 2008, the financial crash destroyed Ammaker’s business and forced him to move back to his small family home in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood (as a silver lining, greatly reducing his environmental footprint).

Today, Ammaker works for a cemetery helping people preplan services, but struggles financially. The free solar panels “just fell into my lap,” he says. “I can actually breathe—the income is starting to come back.”

Such fortune has struck only a small number of families, although Ammaker mentions neighbors who have inquired about solar. The thought of actually attaining solar panels is spreading. With more demand, such programs are likely to expand—thus helping the planet. The full benefits, however, will not come until larger buildings with rentals start to go solar.

One method to get clean power to multi-family buildings is through community solar. “There are a few definitions” of community solar, explains Klein, but “all involve a community coming together around renewable energy with the end goal of using or purchasing it at discounted rates.” This could involve negotiating a better price on individual roofs, but it could also involve “one large solar installation that many people subscribe to.”

For DC, “in terms of the assets that we can deploy to help support community solar we have land, we have roofs, and then we have money,” says Wells. Panels will likely be sited on restored brownfields, dilapidated land that has been cleaned up. This year, DC has budgeted $3 million for community solar installations on government owned land, explains Wells.

Getting these assets to low-income communities is the next step. The DC Department of Energy and Environment is working with several partners to engage local communities, including DC SUN, community associations, and local churches.

Yet DC SUN is critical of the way the city district is implementing the Community Renewables Energy Act. After the law was passed, the DC Public Service Commission deliberated for nearly a year before setting a lower rate for electricity returned to the grid from community solar installations than from homeowners. The rate is capped at 8 cents per kilowatt-hour for community solar, as opposed to 14 cents for individual owners.

In other words, if a community doesn’t use all the energy it produces and some ends up being used elsewhere, that community receives less than 60% of the payment received by an individual in the same situation. The utility pockets the difference.

Klein also questions whether simply providing free panels to homeowners is the best way of spreading solar. He wants to see more local engagement. “We’re focused on democratizing energy, and that starts with education,” he exclaims.

In particular, Klein wants low-income families more aware of the 30% federal tax credit, along with local financial incentives, that solar brings. “DC SUN advocates a better structure to help more families go solar than paying 100% of installation cost for fewer people,” says Grant.

DC has particularly lucrative solar credits available. Ammaker explains, “I found out after the fact that there’s credits if you want—that’s all the bureaucratic stuff mostly people don’t get into.” Fortunately, Ammaker has learned that he’s still eligible for these credits.

Spreading the benefits of solar to unreached communities will only deepen its support and justify the need for it. Contrarily, utilities have used argumed that solar unduly benefits the affluent, who pay for energy moved by the grid. Using this justification, Nevada recently tripled its monthly utility fee for solar, crippling an ongoing solar boom.

Bringing solar to low-income communities undercuts that argument, making it harder for utilities to justify raising fees. As Wells puts it, the “idea that the wealthier don’t pay their share is offset,” as the city addresses equity in solar access. The more widespread solar is, the stronger the argument for keeping it growing.

Washington, DC is doing its part to make this happen. “We will continue to add new job opportunities and economic opportunities,” Wells explains. “I think that there’s going to be economic participation in ways that we haven’t thought of. We are innovating,” leveraging the private and public sector to expand solar to new neighborhoods.

The wider benefits, of course, will go to the environment—and in the long run to all of us, including Ammaker’s grandchildren. To combat climate change, it is crucial to engage all communities. Despite some tensions, Washington, DC is moving toward widespread, equitable use of solar, moving it away from being an exotic technology for the affluent. Such efforts allow the sun’s goodness to shine on rich and poor alike.