Community Shared Solar: Strategies for Low and Moderate Income Inclusion in New York

By Garance Perret on December 14, 2015

Earlier this month, Joy Hughes of the Solar Garden Institute was invited to talk in a webinar entitled ‘Community Shared Solar: Strategies for Low and Moderate Income (LMI) Inclusion in New York State’. Hughes shared her views and experiences on how to make community solar programs – or solar gardens – more inclusive. Community solar is a practical solution to getting the benefits of solar to people who do not have the roof space, or who rent. This is the case for about 70% of people in the U.S. and 90% in New York City. Many of these people are from LMI households.
Community shared solar works through individual or business subscriptions. The subscription entitles the subscriber to claim a portion of the electricity generated from the garden. The solar garden feeds electricity to the utility grid and utility credits the electricity generated against subscriber’s monthly electric bill. Many utilities participating in such programs offers financial incentives for people to sign up.

Hughes emphasizes for the projects to be successful, they have to be matched by strong policy advocacy and committed members. She said it starts at the local level. Each project has what Hughes called a ‘solar gardener’. One person dedicated to the project who will see it through similarly to a project leader. Educating people and encouraging activism help lay the groundwork for policies that allow for community solar.

Advocacy is important because it is the means by which solar supporters persuade government and utilities to establish these efforts. This push for projects like community solar helps build Energy Democracy. Energy democracy is first and foremost about community. Communities can push for the creation of programs that include households from all income levels through education and advocacy.

Cooperatives and nonprofits are great tools for communities to advocate for LMI and organize educational sessions. Additionally, co-ops and nonprofits, as well as utilities, can enable discounts or exemptions for low to moderate income families. Cooperatives are a great way to get people from one community together and allow for bulk purchases thus lowering prices significantly. Nonprofits can help too either within co-ops directly, as well as with individuals to facilitate the access to programs that can help LMI families regain control of their energy.

Community solar gardens can address concerns about the lack of participation of LMI utility customers in solar. That said, there are still hurdles. The credit rating system can render it difficult for these customers to gain approval for community solar programs.

Hughes suggested in order to address those concerns, some solar gardens could be exclusively reserved for renters. Moreover, a percentage of the availability of each garden could be similarly retained for qualifying LMI households. Finally, loans could be made available to help with credit ratings and affordability concerns.

Projects are growing all across the country. If you want to hear to full webinar you can listen here.