The Biden administration has new plans to get lower-income families in touch with solar energy. The White House announced two new programs today aimed at expanding access to “community solar” projects among subsidized housing residents and families who receive federal assistance to pay their utility bills. It also launched a new rewards program for existing community solar projects.
Essentially “Community Solar” allows many different households to share the benefits of one shared solar array. The most common way this takes shape is through a subscription program. A solar company or non-profit organization will build a solar farm, and then families who subscribe to the program will get a credit back on their electric bills for the energy generated by the shared solar farm.
This is intended to reduce electricity bills while promoting clean energy. And compared to traditional home solar installations, community programs are meant to reach more people—especially renters and anyone who can’t spare the $25,000 or so to install PV panels on their home.
Homeowners face fewer barriers to installing solar panels. But even among homeowners, only 6 percent have installed solar, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. A much larger percentage – 46 percent – said they wanted solar panels in their home. Not surprisingly, cost seems to be a big factor in whether or not people are getting into solar power. Only 14 percent of households with residential solar in the US had an annual income of less than $50,000, according to recent research from the Department of Energy and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Today, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced new guidance that enables subsidized housing residents to sign up for community solar. Crucially, the credits they receive for subscribing will not be counted towards their household income, which could otherwise affect their eligibility for rent assistance. The White House thinks the changes can help put 4.5 million households into community solar programs and cut an average of 10 percent off their electric bills each year.
The White House also announced today a new pilot program to help bring community solar to families enrolled in the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP helps people pay their heating and cooling bills and also provides funding to weatherize homes to make them more energy efficient. Now, the Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services plan to develop a digital platform to manage community solar donations for people participating in LIHEAP.
That new platform will be implemented first in places that signed up for the pilot: Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Washington, DC. The White House says the program can save subscribers 20 percent on their electricity bills. By 2025, they want to see $1 billion in combined savings from the program.
Ideally, if those savings reach the 33 million US households eligible for LIHEAP, the Biden administration thinks it would add up to 100 gigawatts of new community photo demand. That’s more than the existing solar capacity in the United States today, which stands at just over 97 gigawatts. It is in a way, much more than the 3.2 gigawatts of community solar capacity installed today.
To further boost community solar energy, the Department of Energy launched the “Sunny Awards for an Equitable Solar Community” today. That program will distribute a cumulative $100,000 – in small awards ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 – to community solar projects that are judged to be particularly good at reaching and saving low- to moderate-income families.
Even with these new measures, however, President Joe Biden is struggling to advance his clean energy agenda. The Democrats’ original climate plan, $300 billion in tax credits for clean energy, is pretty much dead after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin withheld his swing vote. Without sweeping climate legislation, the Biden administration is turning to fragmented strategies to boost clean energy. Today, climate advocates and lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus renewed calls for Biden to declare a climate emergency, which could unlock more executive powers to limit drilling and investments in fossil fuels.
“Community solar deployment is a critical step to protect our climate and the millions of households most vulnerable to utility shutdowns and dirty energy price spikes,” said Jean Su, director of the Energy Justice program at the Center for Biological Diversity, head of the groups that are pushing. for a climate emergency declaration, in a press release. “As deadly heat waves hit records, this move suggests that Biden is taking the climate emergency seriously, but that he needs to go further, and quickly,” says Su.