Affordable solar power is coming to low-income minority neighborhoods
Lower electric bills are the big attraction for financially stressed families
In the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Broadway Heights in San Diego, nearly half of the 192 homes have rooftop solar panels. Neighbor after neighbor talks about what they could now afford. They were paying $200 and $300 a month in electric bills. Now they’re paying zero to $50.
“Now I can get my air conditioner!” said Thresia Route, 62, an information technology administrator.
In Southern Homes and Gardens, an affordable townhouse cooperative in predominantly African-American Southeast Washington, 55 of 90 residences have rooftop solar panels. On-site manager Telana Felder calls solar “my best friend” to escape her former monthly bills of $150 to $200.
“Last month the bill was $4, then this month it was $14,” Felder said. “It was so low I said something was wrong, so I called. They said it was because I had credits from the solar.”
These are among the thousands of moderate- to low-income families and fixed-income retired seniors who are the vanguard in communities of color that are now enjoying solar power. Under a wide variety of state and federal policies and funding mechanisms, and under both nonprofit and for-profit business models, such families are changing the face of renewable energy, broadening the diversity of solar customers with respect to race and income.
For most families I interviewed on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the original attraction was less about getting away from fossil fuels than getting away from the high-energy bills associated with those dirty fuels. According to a 2016 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency for All, households under $25,000 in median income have an “energy burden” more than triple that of households of at least $90,000 in median income. Energy burden is the percentage of income a family spends on energy.
The potential savings from solar are significant enough that improvements in quality of life are abundant and instantly come to mind in home after home, from funding college for children to creature comforts and consumer goods that wealthier families take for granted. In their own way, these residents appreciate solar with all the verve of eco-celebrities Johnny Depp, Julia Roberts and Leonardo DiCaprio.
In the affordable Latino and Hmong home-owner development of Little Long Cheng in Fresno, California, 35 of 42 homes have solar. Construction truck driver Jose Rodriguez, 52, and homemaker wife Arcelei, 50, said their $1,000 a year in savings from their 2009 rooftop system helped pay for a son’s education at Fresno State.
“I got my solar at a perfect time,” Jose Rodriguez said. “With the recession, my boss told me I could only work part time. I could keep putting my money toward education instead of the bills.”
In the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Eric Pritchard, 64, said he was in his third month of solar power atop his home in the historic Nehemiah Houses. About 155 homes have contracted for solar in the affordable development, which was built in the 1980s. A collaboration of churches, community groups and the city worked out an unprecedented plan to sell homes for $43,000 with donated city land, tax abatements and below-market-rate mortgages.
A former Wall Street back-office official who physically received and delivered millions of dollars of bonds to clients, Pritchard said, “I wanted to [go solar] 20, 30 years ago. I remember seeing the small panels on U.S. bases. I have a friend who is an engineer, and we’d talk about wind turbines out in the country. Solar you can have in your own backyard. It’s special that it’s in these homes. We’re actually pioneers for the second time in the same place.”
The likely current per capita champion of affordable solar is the New Orleans area, where post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction has it atop an estimated 7,500 to 8,000 homes. In St. Bernard Parish, auto mechanic Vien Tran, 35, and wife Quynh Le, 29, a server at the famous Café DuMonde beignet coffee shop, said solar power and weatherizing of his home have sliced old bills of up to $300 a month down to about $200. The $100 a month in savings is big money in a household with an annual dual income of about $30,000.
“It goes to toys for the kids,” Tran said, holding one of his small boys. “Each one has their own iPad. I’m pretty sure he can use an iPad better than you.”
In Jefferson Parish, Diane LePree-Williams, a 66-year-old retired passport agency manager, said last December, “I love my little power plant. It’s the first Christmas in a long time where I actually spend on gifts for relatives.”
She rattled off things such as a Crock-Pot, a bubble-bath beauty set and a virtual reality game. “I couldn’t afford any of these things before.”
There are yet no national figures for the number of solar homes owned by working-class and other moderate white-collar and low-income residents. But there is growing evidence of a major class shift in states that now target renewable energy policies toward less affluent families. In Fresno, in the premier solar state of California, 70 percent of installations were in ZIP codes where the average household income is below $55,000, according to a study by Kevala Analytics.
Kevala said the trends indicate that “the market for solar is strongest among people where a 10 to 20 percent savings in their electricity costs is meaningful enough to drive investment in alternative electricity supplies.”
The potential of serving this market is immense. According to a 2015 report by George Washington University’s Solar Institute, rooftop solar on all low-income households could save those families up to a collective $23 billion a year, and its installation could spark nearly $19 billion in local economic activity. The institute said such activity could create 138,000 jobs, most of which could easily employ residents. The solar industry hit a new record of 260,000 jobs last year, according to the Solar Foundation, surpassing the 187,000 jobs that the Department of Energy says are in the oil and gas industry.
Various models have emerged to get solar panels atop homes where owners can’t shell out $10,000 or more for a typical home solar array. In Broadway Heights, Fresno and many other neighborhoods in California, the nonprofit GRID Alternatives is the program manager for the state’s Single-family Affordable Solar Homes program (SASH). Beginning in 2009, with a commitment of $108 million set aside from utility ratepayer funds, philanthropic gifts and in-kind donations from the solar industry, GRID has been identifying homes in communities largely under 80 percent of area median income to install rooftop solar at little or no cost.
A major component of GRID’s program is job training and community volunteering. At one installation site in San Diego, five Latino high school students carried panels across a backyard to hoist up to the technicians. Student Jason Olvera said, “My first choice is to join the military, but I may do this. It’s fun, and you get to help people out.”
In New Orleans and Brownsville, for-profit models are generating power and satisfaction. Both PosiGen in New Orleans and Level Solar in Brownsville bank on private investment, bolstered by either favorable state incentives or state green banks funded by utility bill fees. That allows for mass-purchased solar equipment to be installed on homes regardless of income and without credit checks. The homeowner pays back the cost of the installation through monthly lease payments, with money from savings on the utility bill.
The Southern Homes and Gardens townhouse community benefits from city-driven policies and programs. Washington, D.C., has some of the most aggressive renewable electricity goals in the country and a sustainable energy department funded by a surcharge on energy bills. Some of that money has been used to contract for more than 500 no-cost solar installations in the city’s poorest wards over the past four years.
In the process, solar is changing lives well beyond the pocketbook. In D.C., 21-year-old solar technician Ramo Herbert never considered college because of its cost. He went to a city office looking for a summer job two years ago, and the two choices were a sandwich shop or WDC Solar, an installation firm owned by former professional basketball player Mark Davis.
WDC Solar’s office was just four blocks from Herbert’s house. It opened a world to him that he has come to love — despite summer days of standing on black rooftops in the humid Washington summers.
“As a kid, I didn’t get on too many roller coasters or look over bridges,” Herbert said. “But on the roof, I felt like I was on top of the world. When I tell people what I do, they say, ‘For real? You really do that, lifting all those panels?’
“I remember one day in training, Mr. Davis said, ‘For anyone who is serious, I have a job for you.’ Then one day he told me, ‘You toughed it out. I have a job for you.’ I feel proud of what I’ve done.”
And residents are proud of what they have, with the help of organizations and companies like GRID Alternatives, PosiGen, Level Solar and WDC Solar, as well as the widening array of city and state policies along with federal tax credits that Congress, in a rare bipartisan move, extended through 2022.
In San Diego’s Broadway Heights, Robert Robinson, 68, the community council president and longtime city activist who helped prisoners readjust to society and organized gun buy-backs, led the effort to urge neighbors to take advantage of GRID Alternatives’ program. With 26 panels atop his ranch-style house and many other homes visibly adorned, Robinson said he wants Broadway Heights to be a public face of the solar revolution.
San Diego is the largest city in the United States that has committed to all renewable energy by 2035, and it has begun to designate some neighborhoods as “eco-districts” for their sustainability efforts. Robinson said he wants Broadway Heights to earn such a designation.
But in neighborhoods like his, the real attraction of solar is the lowering of the energy burden. Asked the most important thing that solar has done for him, he exclaimed, “I feel like I gave myself a raise!”