Clean Energy for Low Income Communities: Action Planning

Low-income program planning is an ongoing effort and should be informed by a low-income community assessment and barriers analysis and input from stakeholders. The following are some key points to consider in the planning process based on CELICA partner experience:


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Data-driven approach

When planning a low-income energy program the following objectives are essential during the action planning phase:

  • Set clear and achievable goals
  • Target programs to those with highest burden and impact from energy
  • Ensure equity of access to energy services for eligible low-income households
  • Address gaps in service for various housing sectors
  • Conduct program feasibility studies

Available tools and CELICA partner examples for each of the above objectives are described below.

Set clear and achievable goals.

Washington, DC created its DC Solar for All initiative with aggressive goals to provide solar benefits to 100,000 low-income households. In the planning phase, the program goals were formulated based on feedback from industry stakeholders, and prior lessons learned about the various housing sectors and utility arrangements in the District. Washington, DC discovered during the planning phase that a large number of residents could not participate in Solar for All because they live in master-metered buildings or live in District of Columbia Housing Authority public housing where the District of Columbia Housing Authority pays the utility bills. In response, DC implemented Solar for All Innovation and Expansion grants to identify new business models and find creative solutions to serve low-income District residents and reduce their energy burdens.  

Target programs to those with highest burden and impact from energy.

Groups that CELICA partners target are described below.

  • Prioritize efforts on households that have high energy bills or a high energy burden. Energy burden is the percentage of household income spent on home energy bills. The Department of Energy’s Low-Income Energy Affordability Data (LEAD) Tool and NREL's Solar for All Map can help determine where households with high energy burden or economic vulnerability are located. The former includes customizable charts and graphs on low-income housing and energy burden, while the latter includes geospatial visualization of the data on low-income housing, energy, and other demographic information such as those with asthma and other health risks. For example, the State of Connecticut used a variety of data sources, including LEAD, to develop its goals and activities to reduce energy burden.
  • Focus on segments of the population that are most vulnerable if there is a power outage or lack of heating and cooling. Examples include families with small children and people who are elderly or disabled.
  • Target households living on the margins of housing affordability in high rent areas. These households often have low-income and high housing costs, so reducing energy costs in this population provides a great opportunity to reduce burden.
  • Engage and work to prioritize communities most impacted by air pollution and other environmental hazards who may experience disproportionately high health costs. When a low-income energy program targets homes where chronically ill residents pay high medical bills, the energy improvements may reduce medical costs. See the State of Washington’s work on Weatherization+Health. Program managers can use tools such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EJScreen tool to identify where the opportunities exist nationally, such as done by California’s CalEnviroScreen.

Ensure equity of access to energy services for eligible low-income households.

Many low-income households with the need for energy efficiency and renewable energy have deferred maintenance and some have related health and safety issues that require remediation prior to participation in a program providing energy efficiency or onsite renewable energy services. See the CELICA Issue Brief: Promising Examples of Integrated Energy Efficiency and Health Services for Low-income Households, which features work on this topic in the States of Washington and Connecticut. Consider setting program goals around addressing participants who face these barriers, such as identification and utilization of funding and programs that address multiple needs simultaneously. To address equitable access, programs can track demographic data of participants periodically to evaluate whether each demographic group is being served equitably. Potential factors to analyze equity include household income, education level, race, and language spoken. Tracking barriers to participation in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs that certain groups face can help a low-income energy program achieve more equitable results.

Conduct program feasibility studies.

Feasibility studies can help build a case for and justify investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy by modeling potential impacts and cost savings. For example, Connecticut conducted a feasibility study of a healthy homes program and several state agencies, including the state Medicaid office, are collaborating to launch the Connecticut Green and Healthy Homes Pilot Program.

Action planning

Completing an organized action plan that specifically lists key partners and how they will assist throughout a low-income program can help eliminate confusion during program implementation.

Examples of CELICA partners’ low-income energy program action plans, as well as an action plan template and a guide on how to use the template, are provided below.

The CELICA Action Plan Template provides a fillable worksheet for identifying what objectives, resources, and roles should be articulated at least at a high level for a low-income energy program. See the Action Plan Template Guide for examples and detailed instructions on using the Action Plan Template.

State and local partners achieved their goals through coordinating and planning. Some examples of the steps they took to achieve their low-income energy goals can be found below:

Piloting programs

Pilot programs are useful because they provide the opportunity to test a project without the risk that a full-scale program roll out may carry. Developing a pilot project allows program administrators to understand how a program may impact low-income communities and make changes to program design that address these issues to ensure a program design is feasible and achieves its intended impact.

Examples of CELICA partners’ use of pilot projects for low-income communities are described below.

As described in the CELICA Promising Practice: State Partnerships with Electric Cooperatives for Low-Income Community Solar and Weatherization, the Michigan Community Solar Program developed a pilot project with a rural electric co-operative and a local community action agency to recruit participants that had already received weatherization services to their home and provide community solar services to further decrease energy costs for its community. The State Energy Program provided a grant for the community solar pilot, which was matched approximately 3-to-1 by funding from the electric co-op. The local community action agency was engaged to assist with recruitment and management of low-income subscribers to the solar program, though no Weatherization Assistance Program funding was used to pay for the community solar array. The state expects each subscriber to receive solar credits of approximately $350/year on top of the savings to the home from energy efficiency. After evaluation of the pilot, the Community Solar Program will assess potential to expand the program.

The State of Washington Weatherization Plus Health Program pilot evaluation featured in the CELICA Issue Brief: Promising Examples of Integrated Energy Efficiency and Health Services for Low-income Households identifies lessons learned from building upon the state weatherization program to integrate health services such as Green Cleaning Kits, dust mite covers, walk-off mats, carbon monoxide detectors, HEPA vacuum cleaners, carpet removal and floor replacement, moisture and mold reduction, ventilation improvements, and gutter and downspout repair and replacement. This pilot uses non-federal funds to conduct health and safety improvements on top of the federally-funded weatherization projects.

Expanding partnerships

Partnerships are vital to the success of low-income energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. The ability to utilize a variety of state, utility, and private funding and program resources can help ensure each low-income household participating in a program gets the assistance it needs. Also, by creating a large network of partners and leveraging existing housing, weatherization, and energy assistance networks to deliver a low-income program, CELICA partners have sought to help elevate the impacts that a low-income program may have on a community.

Examples of how CELICA partners expanded their networks to deliver low-income programs are described below.

As described in the CELICA Case Study: Colorado's Approach to Low-Income Community Solar Programs that Leverage Weatherization Networks, as part of the expansion of Xcel Energy’s low-income community solar model, Xcel engaged a network of low-income energy service providers to recruit and manage low-income subscribers. This network was engaged given they have a ready set of pre-qualified subscribers and established relationships with low-income households.

As described in the CELICA Promising Practice: Leverage Refinanacing and Renovation Events to Drive Low-Income Multifamily Housing Energy Retrofits, Massachusetts partnered with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation in Boston, a large organization that works to facilitate low-income housing development and community revitalization by providing funding and technical assistance to community lenders and low-income housing developers. In this project, the Local Initiative Support Corporation offers matching grants for investment-grade energy audits for affordable housing renovation projects in coordination with a scheduled capital needs assessment or an existing refinancing schedule. Based on the audit results, the Local Initiative Support Corporation assists building owners with making decisions on what to install and works to maximize use of state and utility funding that can incentivize building owners to install energy efficiency and renewable energy measures. They also handle post-installation follow up and warranties to ensure performance and satisfaction needs are met.