New initiative to provide solar to low-income housing

By John David Baldwin on July 27, 2015

Last month, the Obama Administration announced the National Community Solar Partnership. This is a collaboration between the Federal Government, solar industry, and non-profit organizations designed to expand solar access these homes and businesses. In particular, the partnership will focus on expanding access to low- and moderate-income communities.

This effort builds upon the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s announcement from May of last year. The Department set forth a new Federal commitment to renewable energy. Twenty-seven affordable housing and service providers across the nation pledged to install more than 150 MW of on-site renewable energy, more than double the amount of renewable energy currently on HUD-assisted multifamily buildings. (This is greater than President Obama’s originally projected Climate Action Plan target of 100 MW. The current target is 300 MW of on-site renewable energy on Federally-subsidized housing.)

There are two main challenges involved in bringing solar power to HUD-assisted housing residents. First is the low income of families residing in this type of housing. Second is the fact that they are multifamily rather than single-family rentals. The upfront capital sufficient to finance a solar array will usually not be available to low income families through their own resources alone, and in any case, obtaining buy-in for a solar installation by the building owners is usually very difficult.

In most states, where community solar/virtual net metering is not allowed, a group installation on a multi-family building is very difficult to complete. It requires buy-in from all the tenants, as well as the expensive installation of wiring systems individually to each unit. The President’s initiative encourages the housing and service providers themselves to step in and provide solar power and its resulting energy savings to families in HUD-assisted housing.

One of the 27 named providers in the President’s announcement is San Diego, CA-based Community HousingWorks (CHW), CHW has installed solar electric or solar hot water at 11 of its buildings. It is looking to triple that total in the coming years, benefiting more than 1,000 low-income families with lower electric and heating bills.

EAH Housing, a nonprofit California-based housing development and management corporation, is also among the multifamily affordable housing leaders who have committed to expand the use of solar on their properties. EAH already has 3.1 MW of on-site solar in its portfolio, and has committed to 20 more solar projects. They are looking to save low-income families $18 million over the next 25 years. Such savings achieved through solar investments help free up resources that can then be applied to making the lives of low-income housing residents better. These include “resource coordination services that connect residents to local services in the form of afterschool activities, nutrition programs, resume development and on-site tech lounges.” California’s strong solar incentive structure has catalyzed these projects.

It isn’t just California. Projects are happening across the country. Enterprise Community Partners, which facilitates affordable multifamily housing nationwide, announced a 16 MW target totaling $40 million in investment by 2020. The organization looks to raise capital from socially-motivated investors and by offering debt and equity financing to apartment building owners.

These examples show that housing providers believe installing solar energy is compatible with serving low-income residents. For more information about low-income solar, including a list of Internet resources on the topic, please check out Community Power Network’s low-income solar page.