July 5, 2017 Djuan Coleon

Can America Fight Energy Poverty with Solar Power?

Energy Poverty is defined as when a household spends more than 10% of their income on energy costs. In America there are several places shown on a map using census and federal energy data shows where energy costs are 50% of the incomes. The poor cannot afford higher energy costs. Can America fight Energy Poverty with Solar Power? The average cost to install residential solar power is almost $17,000 in 2017. Who living below the poverty line has an extra $17,000 laying around?

(Volunteers install solar on Grid Alternatives first multifamily affordable housing project in Washington D.C.)

(Volunteers install solar on Grid Alternatives first multifamily affordable housing project in Washington D.C.)

How do we insure low to moderate income communities have access to solar at a affordable rate to reduce their energy costs. Low to moderate-income households (about 40 percent of the country) make up only 5 percent of the rooftop solar market in 2013. One of the major obstacles is that most are renters and don’t have control over the roof of the home. This is part of the problem that my team is faced with in Brunswick, GA,  a city on the coast of Georgia with a 42% Poverty rate. Our team PURE Brunswick recently was selected by the Department of Energy to design and implement a project to give access to solar to LMI (Low to Moderate Income) communities.

“The federal government’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, provides by far the largest source of funding in the nation to help the poor with power bills, most of that going to home heating costs. LIHEAP provided $3.39 billion in funding in 2015. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service estimates only 22 percent of those eligible for LIHEAP assistance receive it.” –   and 

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What are the options to reduce energy costs for low to moderate income communities? Besides investing in renewable energy sources, local governments like in New York are deciding to attempt to offset energy costs for it’s citizens. Governor Cuomo and the New York State Public Service Commission approved the state’s first Energy Affordability Policy. This will provide almost two million low-income New Yorkers with $248 million in direct to offset energy costs. This new policy limits energy costs to no more than 6 percent of the household income for low-income New Yorkers a 50% discount to what current rates are.

SOLAR TO THE RESCUE

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Renew300 Program has been promoting solar installations with Public Housing Authority.

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Link to full report: https://www.hudexchange.info/course-content/solar-project-development-for-public-housing-authorities-webinar/Solar-Project-Development-for-PHAs-webinar-slides.pdf

As much as we believe solar to be the answer to our energy needs. We must also realize solar is a business. Solar power is not FREE and people living below the poverty line are not going to have upfront capital to get access to solar. The city of Santa Barbara, California provided an excellent solution to not only help lower energy costs they also provided access to solar power. The Housing Authority of Santa Barbara did a 100% offsetting of energy consumption for their 21 properties. This was done with the installation of 1,700 solar photovoltaic panels on 253 building units producing 1.7 mega-watts of power. The project utilized California renewable energy incentives, federal grants and renewable investment tax credit provisions enacted by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and HUD’s Energy Performance Contract (EPC), about 50% of the costs were offset by federal sources. In order to make this type of installation work it required working with the local utilities, city government and federal government resources and partnerships. In order for America to address Energy Poverty in communities that are often poor and historically frontline communities for toxic and hazardous waste. We must be creative in our approach to not only bring solar to these communities but also eliminate the pollution in the areas.

“YOU’VE PROBABLY NOTICED THAT FACTORIES, POWER PLANTS, AND SUPERFUND SITES TEND TO CLUSTER IN COMMUNITIES ALREADY BURDENED WITH SOCIAL STRESSES; IT’S A VICIOUS CYCLE WHERE BEING POOR MEANS YOUR ENVIRONMENT IS TERRIBLE, AND POVERTY PLUS THE TERRIBLE ENVIRONMENT MAKES YOU MORE SICK, WHICH IN TURN CAN KEEP YOU POOR. THANKS, CAPITALISM!” — BY JESS ZIMMERMAN

So addressing energy needs of the poor is something we cannot do in a vacuum we must look at systemic issues as well in order to be effective. We have to be willing to form public private partnerships and work with all stakeholders including utilities to get access to the grid. In Brunswick, GA we are not just looking at ways to bring solar power to LMI communities but how can we build a green ecosystem to address multiple issues that affect the poor.

 

 

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