White House, Sen. Sanders Move To Expand Solar Access for Low-Income Communities

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On the heels of the Obama Administration’s announcement of a wide-ranging initiative to increase access to solar energy for all Americans, particularly in low- and moderate-income communities, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has introduced a bill to make it easier for low-income owners and renters to enjoy the benefits of solar energy.

Sanders’s statement upon introducing his bill noted, “While low-income families are hardest hit by rising utility prices, they are also the hardest hit by the impacts of climate change. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the poor spend more than 60 percent of their income on basic necessities including electricity and food, compared to less than 45 percent for wealthy families. Helping low-income families use solar power addresses both of these issues.”

Baltimore Announcement
In Baltimore, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D- Md.) and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake joined senior Obama Administration officials in announcing the president’s program, which includes a significant increase in the commitment to solar energy for subsidized housing.

Having surpassed its original goal for solar energy on such housing through commitments to install more than 185 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy, the administration announced that it has upped the goal to 300 MW by 2020, and that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will provide direct technical assistance to affordable housing organizations pledging to help reach the new goal.

The announcement also highlighted the Solar Energy Industries Association’s commitment to become the most diverse sector of the U.S. energy industry. Complementing that, the White House said a number of individual companies are taking steps to build a more inclusive solar workforce.

“Unlocking access” for renters
As part of the solar initiative, the Department of Energy (DOE), in collaboration with HUD, the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, solar companies, non-governmental organizations and community leaders, are launching a National Community Partnership to “unlock access” to solar for the nearly half of U.S. households and businesses that are renters or do not have adequate roof space to install solar systems 

In addition, housing authorities, rural electric co-ops, power companies and organizations in more than 20 states have made commitments to install more than 260 solar energy projects, including projects to help low- and moderate-income communities save on their energy bills and to further community solar.

Also part of the White House announcement was the more than $520 million that philanthropic and impact investors, states and cities have committed for advancing community solar and scaling up solar and energy efficiency for low- and moderate- income households.

Low Income Solar Act
Sanders’s Low Income Solar Act of 2015 would provide $200 million in loans and grants, through DOE, to offset the up-front costs for solar arrays on community facilities, public housing and low-income family homes. The bill would also fund development of solar arrays in Appalachia and Alaskan native communities and on Indian tribal lands.

By prioritizing loans for woman- and minority-owned small businesses, the solar projects would promote diversity in the workforce, as well.

Homeowners whose roofs can support solar panels could apply for grants to help reduce the upfront installation costs. For renters or families otherwise unable to install solar on their roofs, the bill would provide loans to solar developers to connect low-income families to solar power, either physically or via community solar facilities that must set aside at least 25 percent of the quantity of the electricity generated for low-income households.

Bill Includes Job Training, Energy Efficiency
The bill also calls for each solar project to include job training or community engagement opportunities – defined as community participation in which job trainees and volunteers help develop solar projects. Job training could include U.S. Department of Labor- or state agency-approved apprenticeship opportunities.

Also required, “to the maximum extent practicable,” is that solar installation activities funded by the bill “leverage or connect grant-eligible households to federally or locally subsidized weatherization and energy efficiency efforts that meet or exceed local energy efficiency standards.”

“ECC commends Sen. Sanders on introducing the Low Income Solar Act of 2015,” said ECC Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs Felipe Floresca. “The bill not only makes low-income families – both renters and property owners – smart energy consumers, it also positions them to reap the jobs, business opportunities and other economic benefits of the clean energy economy.”


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