“Solar Assistance” offers long-term LIHEAP alternative

By Ben Delman on July 31, 2015

Last year, the Federal Government spent more than three billion dollars to help low-income families pay for winter heating. Much of this money comes through a program known as LIHEAP (Low-income home energy assistance program). LIHEAP fills a vital need for families across the country.

But, LIHEAP only provides temporary relief. It does not solve the issue of rising fuel costs, which LIHEAP funds need to cover every winter. This problem spurred the Minnesota-based Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) to act. Since 2000, the organization has worked to increase the adoption of renewable energy as a way to provide long-term energy security to low-income households and communities.

RREAL partners with community action agencies to find and support low-income families with what RREAL calls “Solar Assistance”. Community action agencies provide a variety of services to low-income communities, including helping families sign up for assistance programs like LIHEAP. RREAL works with these organizations to develop solar electric and solar thermal projects that offset the need for annual LIHEAP funding.

RREAL develops projects over a two-year cycle. It recently completed Project Standing Sun. This effort equipped 62 low-income households with solar energy, producing 117 MWh of energy annually. The project was a success due to a broad coalition of twenty-two partners and funders.

The organization has more than a decade of half of experience working in the region. It has used this time to build relationships with partners and demonstrate its capacity to bring projects to completion. It worked with tribal partners across four states (Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin) to help coordinate the installations on low-income family homes and low-income multi-family housing. RREAL worked to pool funding from three regional foundations, two utilities, the Minnesota Department of Commerce, and the Central Minnesota Housing Partnership. They also received donated materials from a PV module manufacturer.

“For those interested in replicating our process, it takes time, networking, and proving yourself as a viable partner,” said BJ Allen, RREAL Special Project Manager.

The project comprised two different ownership types. For single-family residences, ownership of the systems was passed directly to the low-income household. On the multi-family units, the affordable housing developer retained ownership of the systems.

RREAL’s work to provide a permanent solution to winter heating needs has paid real dividends. Allen noted the winter of 2013-2014 was particularly harsh. High demand and shortages pushed propane prices were above $4.60 per gallon. The families with solar thermal systems saved more than $1,000 that season. This freed up LIHEAP funding to cover more families.

RREAL’s is keen on expanding its impact with community solar projects. Minnesota is a hotbed for community solar. Community solar allows many individuals or organizations to invest in a single solar project. RREAL is looking to leverage this growth by developing community solar for community action agencies.

Community action agencies are already responsible for identifying families who need LIHEAP assistance and ensuring they receive support. RREAL is looking to develop community solar projects that will allow these agencies to parcel out shares of the energy produced from a community solar project to these same families. RREAL is hoping to get this program off the ground next year.