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Projects Bring Solar Power to Low-Income Households

April 18, 2014 — Across the country, both governments and non-profits are creating programs to make solar power affordable and available to low-income households. As the price of solar installation continues to drop, the technology has become affordable for middle- and upper-income households. Programs across the country are trying to put it within the reach of low-income communities, too.

In March, the Minnesota-based Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) announced a multi-state project to install residential solar thermal systems in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. Called the "Standing Sun Solar Assistance Project," its goal is to address low-income fuel poverty in rural areas without access to the natural gas grid.

RREAL began in 2000 when a group of volunteers gathered to assemble solar heating panels for low-income homes. Over time, these volunteers grew into a non-profit organization that was able to get its program coordinated with both Minnesota LIHEAP and the state's Weatherization Assistance Program.

RREAL touts its solar program as a way to provide "several decades of relief from rising fuel costs while fostering ecological health, social equity, and self reliance." At the 2009 National Energy and Utility Affordability Conference, RREAL founder Jason Edens gave a presentation elaborating on some of these ideas.

In Minnesota, eligibility for RREAL's Solar Assistance program includes qualifying for LIHEAP, receiving weatherization services, having a good solar source at the home's location, and making sure solar heat is compatible with the house. RREAL directs people to community action agencies to see about the availability of solar funds and eligibility.

RREAL isn't alone in its efforts to bridge the solar income gap. A November 2013 piece State and Local Energy Report recapped some of the history behind such efforts around the country. It also profiled two programs in California, SASH and MASH.

The two programs put solar panels on the roofs of low-income participants' homes. SASH focuses on the single-family households. Households whose income is 50 percent or less of the area median income can qualify for a fully-subsidized, one kilowatt solar system. Those households with incomes up to 80 percent can qualify for up-front partial subsidies. While SASH focuses on individual households, MASH offers rebates for qualifying low-income multifamily buildings.

SASH and MASH were initially supposed to end in 2015. However, their popularity resulted in legislation extending them through 2021.

The Energy Report also describes efforts to bring solar power to low-income communities in Colorado, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Wisconsin.

Sources: NEUAC, State and Local Energy Report