Solar panels provide renewable, emissions-free, and cost-saving electricity to consumers. They can reduce energy bills for low-income households, enhance indoor air quality, and provide greater comfort. One way to provide access to solar power to low-income families, particularly those living in multi-unit apartments, is through community solar. Multiple subscribers can use a shared solar facility and get credit on their utility bills for the generated power. Because community solar gardens are typically close to their customers, much less electricity is lost from solar panels than if it traveled through long-distance electric transmission lines.
While the adoption of solar panels by the middle class has gone up by 48% since 2010, low-income households represented only 15%. Because most low-income families rent their homes, they do not have the opportunity to own their solar panels. The high cost of solar installation remains a major barrier to them.
Successful community solar case study
A successful community solar project in Colorado is a good example of how solar power could help reduce energy burden and inequality. The Colorado Energy Office (CEO), a state energy agency, rolled out a pilot Low-Income Community Solar Demonstration Project in 2015. CEO partnered with eight non-regulated utilities to build six community solar models for 380 families across several counties in the state. CEO and participating utilities shared the cost of building the solar systems. The utilities gave credits toward subscriber energy bills.
As a result, every community solar facility has saved between 15% to 50% on subscribers’ monthly electric bills – or nearly $400 per household. The pilot project has grown to 1.4 megawatts of solar power. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, renewable energy research and development of the federal government, state energy agencies across the US expressed interest in cutting the energy burden.
Weatherization and energy efficiency
Alycia Jenkins told SaveOnEnergy that improving energy efficiency would lower energy bills and help low-income families. Such a measure includes:
- Home insulation
- Replacement of old appliances with energy-efficient ones
- Usage of smart thermostats to cut heating costs
- Changing incandescent light bulbs to more energy-efficient light emitting diode (LED) bulbs
Residential and commercial buildings in the US waste nearly 50% of their energy. Weatherization and energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs can significantly reduce energy waste and utility bills. Energy-efficiency of multi-family apartments could save $3.4 billion in utility costs. By some estimates, if low-income residential units became more energy-efficient, their energy costs would go down by about one-third.
The federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) have been around for many years to help reduce energy costs for low-income families. LIHEAP provides cash to low-income households to pay their heating bills. WAP improves the insulation and energy efficiency of eligible homes. But there are strict income criteria to qualify for both programs. Some customers in need of such assistance may not qualify due to slightly higher than required income.
The rising inflation and cost of electricity have left many low-income households in the U.S. in debt. Many of them are 90 days or more past due on their gas and electric bills. There is more demand for energy assistance than available federal funding. Sometimes cash assistance to help pay for utilities is lower than the energy cost. In an interview, Alisha York, a single low-income mother on fuel assistance, told the author that the yearly lump sum of $800 to pay for heating costs in her rental unit in Massachusetts is not enough to cover her monthly gas and electricity bills of more than $300.
Saltanat Berdikeeva is a seasoned energy writer and analyst and a published author, who specializes in renewables, energy efficiency, and energy transition. Saltanat’s articles on energy issues and trends in Eurasia, the Middle East, and the U.S. featured in Energy Digital, Inside Arabia, European Energy Review, Environment Journal, National Geographic, Platts, Oil and Gas Journal, Jane’s, Insight Turkey, ISN, and local newspapers. Check out her podcast Reimagined Communities on energy transition in American communities.