Better Buildings Accelerator helps state and local organizations across the country partner with low income neighborhoods to deliver affordable energy solutions to residents

By Better Buildings Beat Team on Dec 21, 2016

Over the last six months, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been working with 38 state and local partners to identify ways to reduce monthly home energy bills for low income residents by increasing opportunities for energy efficiency and solar installations. In collaboration with the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and several national organizations partnering in the Clean Energy for Low Income Communities Accelerator, DOE is underway with identifying and developing promising solutions that can be scaled nationally.

One such national partner is Groundswell, an energy equity nonprofit organization that is demonstrating how partnerships can help bring solar to low income neighborhoods. On December 15, Groundswell announced a partnership with Temple of Praise, a 15,000+ member interdenominational church, to develop a community solar array on the church’s property that will provide clean, affordable energy for more than 150 households in Washington DC’s Wards 7 and 8. Groundswell projects a minimum savings of 10% on electricity costs for low and moderate income household who will subscribe for credits to this solar project. Through the partnership, Groundswell will work with Temple of Praise to develop and construct a landmark solar installation that will also serve as a canopy for the church’s parking lot. Once constructed, the Temple of Praise project will be the largest community solar project in the District and the first in Wards 7 and 8 .

Washington D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8 are known to have the area’s highest poverty rates, along with the highest rental rates in the city.  Owning a home and having upfront capital (i.e., money in the bank to pay at least some of the costs associated with a project before it begins) have traditionally been two key elements needed to bring solar to a home. Low income households are more likely to rent than own their home, and even if they do own their home, they lack savings needed for upfront investments. As a result, low income residents have not typically been in a position to take advantage of clean energy options.  However, Accelerator partners like Groundswell, with support from policies and incentives offered by local and state governments, are working to create solutions that overcome these barriers. 

As the Groundswell project demonstrates, community solar is a distributed energy solution that shows great potential in expanding clean energy access to Americans that can’t participate in traditional rooftop solar because they don’t own their roof, don’t have a roof in the right location, or don’t have a high enough credit score.  Solar programs combined with energy efficiency services offer the double benefit of reduced energy usage from efficiency gains and reduced costs from the falling price paid for solar projects. In addition to supporting national and local partners in their planning process, the US Department of Energy is bringing new resources to the table. Most notably, the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative recently launched the Solar In Your Community Challenge to expand solar access to low and moderate income communities that have difficulty accessing the traditional solar market. Through the Challenge, teams will compete to win $5 million in cash prizes and technical assistance while working to develop new and innovative financial and business models that expand solar access.  Applications are currently being accepted.

This new work builds on support that DOE has provided to low income households to reduce their energy bills through the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP),  a program that provides cost effective energy savings measures such as air sealing, insulation, heating system repair and lighting upgrades.  Each year, WAP provides invaluable whole home energy improvements to tens of thousands of the most vulnerable households, including seniors, disabled and families with small children, none of whom would be able to afford it otherwise. Yet, many more households do not qualify for weatherization assistance, or are otherwise unable to afford paying for energy saving improvements to their home. In addition, as costs of solar systems have come down, states and utilities across the country have adopted specific renewable energy goals that include a focus on energy equity – in other words, ensuring that low income customers can benefit from available programs.

DOE launched the Better Buildings Clean Energy for Low Income Communities Accelerator in May 2016 to address the potential benefits from integrating efficiency and renewable solutions by state and local government agencies, utilities and other local stakeholders. DOE is partnering with state and local government agencies, utilities and nonprofits because these stakeholders are on the forefront of progress, demonstrating promising new ways to make clean energy more accessible for those that can benefit most from it and that would otherwise be unable to afford it.