Cross-Sector Collaboration at Low-Income Solar Roundtable

April 18, 2014

On April 9, 2014 the GW Solar Institute partnered with DC Solar United Neighborhoods (DC SUN) to convene 70 stakeholders from over 40 businesses, non-profits, and government agencies to discuss and develop recommendations on how to best scale the deployment of solar to benefit lower income DC residents.

While solar energy has become increasingly affordable and accessible and Americans now more than ever are citing economic reasons for going solar, most of these installations are occurring in relatively higher income neighborhoods. This is the case in Washington DC, where multiple market barriers prevent wider deployment, depriving less affluent District residents from reaping the benefits of solar energy. Lower income Washingtonians are more likely to be renters, live in multi-family buildings, have lower credit scores, or have their utility bills covered through government support programs, all barriers to empowering every District resident with the choice to use solar energy.

Despite these challenges, the District’s recent enactment of forward-leaning legislation opens up new ways to achieve the real potential for solar to address energy affordability and generate greater wealth within the community. One case study for this potential is in California, where families participating in the innovative Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) program reduced their monthly electricity bills by an average of around 80%, savings that will continue for the life of these solar systems (at least twenty years or more). Such savings could have a significant positive impact on strained District family budgets, where households with incomes below 50% of the Federal poverty level must spend about a third of their annual income for their home energy bills, and energy assistance programs like the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) are unable to fully address community needs.

Well-designed and implemented solar investment programs can permanently bring wealth into low-income communities by becoming a source of local, living-wage jobs and empowering families with a tangible asset that delivers decades of dependable revenue streams. In addition, with residential solar installations beginning to saturate the early adopter market, the right kind of low-income solar programs can help ensure the continued growth of our nascent local solar industry, reduce future electricity price fluctuations for all residents, and help the District meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The Roundtable sought to connect government representatives, community advocates, and leaders from the solar, finance, and housing industries to identify new options and synergies between existing low-income housing and energy programs in the District. The first half of the event focused on exploring each sector’s efforts to increase access to solar energy for middle and lower income individuals. In the afternoon, dialogue was results-oriented and focused on cross-sector collaboration and potential solutions. Participants had lively conversations on how to reinvigorate and develop solar programs and policies aimed to benefit lower income DC residents. A professional facilitator then led an exercise to hone in on the major themes discussed and build consensus among the attendees. Participants then broke out into smaller groups to further refine their ideas and create action plans for the next steps for each solution.

After an engaging day of education, dialogue, and brainstorming, the diverse group of local interests agreed that a number of synergies and opportunities exist between the District’s low-income housing and energy programs and that DC could become a national leader and serve as a model on how to best deploy solar in urban low-income communities.