Spreading Solar PV to a Broader Audience

Community solar programs are budding around the country. These programs are often promoted as a way to spread solar to those who can’t host a system on their roof. But are they reaching lower- and moderate-income (LMI) customers who may want to participate, including those living in multi-family rentals (MFR) such as condos and other high-rises?

So far, very few solar PV programs, including community solar, cater to this customer segment and according to a new report from The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) without a focused plan lower-income customers won’t get served by community solar.

IREC has started promoting the spreading of shared solar programs to a broader range of customers by looking at and borrowing from successes in other sectors.

Financing is a central issue. LMI residents often don’t have access to the financial resources to pay upfront costs or make monthly payments, and paying for renewable energy isn’t a priority. With risks of default or low enrollment, this deters many developers and financiers to service these customers.

However, a shared solar program could include customers from the commercial and industrial sector, or a similar number of homeowners in the moderate- to upper-income bracket with the potential of creating better, aggregated credit and payment histories, thus reducing risk. As an example, the first phase of New York’s community solar program requires 20% of customers to be low-income.

Another possibility is getting states to offer more attractive loans. New York’s Green Bank has awarded tens of millions of dollars in loans to companies offering low- to no-cost energy efficiency and solar PV options to homeowners. These loans have encouraged commercial banks to support projects serving this sector.

Outreach and marketing need to be taken into account as well, says IREC, and suggest that policymakers and regulators could design programs that leverage organizations and networks already working with LMI residents. Partnering with an organization already working in the sector builds trust, while for the developers down on staff and marketing resources.

Many of the concepts and mechanisms to broaden solar PV to LMI consumers are already in place in other sectors and have been demonstrated to work for products and services. “There isn’t the need to reinvent every wheel,” says IREC.