EC Seattle, NW SEED Awarded $60,000 Grant To Pursue Equitable Access to Solar Energy

EC Seattle and Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (NW SEED) have partnered to win a $60,000 grant to craft and pursue local policies bridging what they call a stark “green divide” in King County, Wash. More than 3,400 single-family homes there have gone solar, thanks in large part to state subsidies – saving their owners upwards of  $2.1 million a year in electricity costs – compared with only four multifamily affordable housing properties.

At its core, the partnership is designed to address two separate but intertwined issues:

  • Current solar policies do not work for low-income households or for the nonprofit housing providers that serve them; and efforts to expand access at the state level have been ineffective.
  • Historically, affordable housing providers and low-income advocates have not had a seat at the table in the development of solar policies, and as a result lack needed tools to utilize solar.

An Equity Issue
EC Seattle and NW SEED firmly believe that clean energy access is an equity issue, not a political one, and that as solar becomes an increasingly affordable investment, it is important that its benefits and wealth-creation potential are distributed to all members of their community.

So rather than wait for new state policies, they decided to seek funding for the development of a local program that would show political decision makers that solar can provide tangible benefits to low-income households and affordable housing providers. “By modeling a program that works in Seattle, we can clearly demonstrate the benefits of expanding solar access and the importance of prioritizing equity in state-level energy policymaking,” said EC Seattle Director Steve Gelb.

With the grant money from Sustainable Community Funders, a group of four Seattle-based philanthropies, EC Seattle and NW SEED plan to convene a working group that will craft a program broadening solar access for low-income households and include underrepresented communities in developing a shared vision for an equitable clean-energy future. Additional benefits include environmental sustainability and expanded economic opportunity.

The working group will draw on EC Seattle’s ongoing collaboration with Seattle City Light, the Washington State Housing Finance Commission and local nonprofit housing providers – key players in ECC’s RENEW Multi-family Program, which originated in Seattle. California Public Housing Commission Public Policy Director Wayne Waite will advise the working group, bringing his deep experience with solar, low-income housing and development policies. The partners also plan to include representatives of environmental justice advocacy organizations, Seattle government agencies and the City Council.

Political Roadblocks
In applying for the grant, EC Seattle and NW SEED made the case that current policies supporting solar energy deployment lack opportunities thwart the participation of low-income communities in the clean-energy economy.

They noted that most of the approximately five million households residents of federally subsidized housing are renters in multifamily buildings. As such, many are unable to make energy improvements that would save them money and protect them against rising energy costs. They also noted that according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, low-income households spend up to twice as much on utility costs as the average U.S. household.

Compounding the difficulties is that the 30 percent federal tax credit for solar installations is largely unavailable to owners of nonprofit affordable housing and low-income households due to their low tax burdens. This effectively adds 30 percent to the cost of solar projects for those who can least afford such a premium.

In Washington state, political roadblocks to broader clean-energy access include a homeownership requirement for solar incentives and price tags that put solar out of reach for low-income households. This has reduced support for continued government subsides, as state legislators believe only the wealthy are interested in solar.

Now is the Time
Asserting that Seattle “is ripe for local demonstration of a pathway for low-income solar access,” the grantees successfully applied for funds to advance local policy.

A local approach, they added, demonstrates a strong commitment to community resilience, while enhancing environmental sustainability, increasing clean-energy production, lowering the regional electric grid’s carbon intensity and growing the market for green jobs. It will also spark economic opportunity by lowering building operating costs to help keep housing affordable for those who need it most.


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