How Local Governments Can Advance Solar Equity
From the federal government to your local city hall, American leaders are setting ambitious goals for expanding solar energy over the next decade. Solar is clearly one of the key tools we have for meeting the climate change challenge, creating jobs, and revitalizing local economies.
As we work together to achieve this historic energy transition, it will be essential to make sure the clean energy economy benefits everyone—including communities of color, low-income households, rural areas, and other underserved communities. National, state, and local leaders are rightfully emphasizing equity as an essential part of their commitment to clean energy.
At IREC, I lead a national program called SolSmart, which launched in 2016 and is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office. Along with the International City/County Management Association and a team of national experts, we help local governments become solar energy leaders so their communities can thrive.
Since the program launched in 2016, SolSmart has designated more than 400 communities across the nation for reducing barriers to solar energy growth. While we are proud of the program’s accomplishments, we know that additional steps will help ensure it provides equal benefits to underserved groups and communities.
That’s why this month, we released new guidance to help local officials apply an equity lens toward their plans to expand solar energy use. While some communities are already taking the lead on energy equity issues, others may not be sure where to start. Our hope is that this guidance will provide a roadmap for communities that seek to integrate equity principles into their solar energy development goals.
Even as solar installations experience dramatic growth, achieving equitable access to solar remains a challenge. Low-to-moderate-income (LMI) families face a disproportionate “energy burden”, referring to the percentage of household income spent on energy costs. With its potential to greatly reduce energy bills, solar energy can be of significant benefit. However, LMI families have run up against a number of obstacles including the upfront cost, lack of available incentives, and lack of transparent information, among other factors.
Communities of color have also faced persistent barriers related to solar energy use. One study found that Black and Hispanic neighborhoods have installed less solar than majority-white neighborhoods even when controlling for income and home ownership. Clearly, there’s more work to be done to ensure everyone has access to clean, low-cost solar energy solutions.
Municipalities, counties, and regional organizations work to achieve SolSmart designation by meeting national criteria in several areas (permitting and inspection, planning and zoning, government operations, community engagement, and market development). Our new guidance identifies ways that communities can meet the SolSmart criteria within the framework of advancing equity goals.
Some of the key strategies we’ve identified in the guidance include:
Plan for Equity
One of the fundamental actions that local governments can take is to update their comprehensive plans and zoning codes to ensure there is a pathway for solar development. This is also an opportunity to include a commitment to solar equity as part of the planning process. For example, a comprehensive plan can include goals to increase the amount of locally-owned or LMI-owned solar, or track the number of solar projects in LMI neighborhoods. Plans can also include solar group purchase programs or community solar projects with an LMI focus, which I’ll discuss in more detail below.
Engage the Community
At an IREC Vision Summit held in early 2020, participants stressed the importance of seeking input and forming partnerships to design clean energy programs that match a community’s needs. Our guidance outlines a number of ways that local governments can build these community relationships to advance equity goals. For some communities, informational meetings (virtual or in person) may prove more effective than posting information on a website. Local officials can also support workforce development initiatives including partnerships with local high schools, community colleges, and other institutions to provide solar training and career services to historically disadvantaged groups.
Engage with the Utility
The local electric utility will always be a crucial stakeholder as local governments discuss their community goals for solar energy. For example, local officials can evaluate potential development sites that can improve access to solar in LMI neighborhoods; include community leaders in their discussions with local utilities; or identify supportive policies, such as financing options for LMI customers. The role of a utility will vary considerably depending on whether it is an investor-owned utility, a municipal utility, or a co-op.
Adopt a Solarize Campaign
One of the tools that local governments can use to advance solar markets is a group purchase program, or Solarize campaign. These programs invite residents or business owners to install rooftop solar at a discounted rate. They typically include an extensive marketing and education campaign, which can be used as a tool for outreach to LMI communities and communities of color. Financial incentives for low-income households can be another component of a Solarize program. One example is the Solarize Philly program led by the Philadelphia Energy Authority, which includes financial support for LMI households to install solar. Philadelphia (SolSmart Gold) also led a related workforce development program to help high school students prepare for solar careers.
Support Community Solar
Also known as shared solar, this is another important policy tool that can help bring solar energy to underserved communities. Community solar programs allow residents to purchase solar energy from an array that is installed remotely, rather than on their own rooftops. This opens up participation to renters, multifamily housing residents, and others who do not plan to install solar on their own property. Community solar programs can be designed specifically to benefit LMI residents or include benefits for these families. In one example, the Denver Housing Authority partnered with GRID Alternatives on a community solar array for low-income households, allowing them to save 15-20 percent on their electricity bills. Another example is the Colorado Energy Office Low-Income Community Solar Demonstration Project, which worked with utility partners to reduce energy burdens for nearly 400 low-income consumers.
Other Local Strategies
Our equity guidance lists a variety of other actions that communities can take. These can include innovative online resources, such as a dashboard with metrics related to LMI solar installations, or a map of local solar installations based on neighborhood income levels. Local governments can also partner with financial institutions to offer incentives for solar installations.
Many states have developed robust programs to help advance equity goals, and communities are also encouraged to seek out any resources or incentives that may be available in their state. An example is California’s SOMAH program, which offers financial incentives for solar PV on multifamily housing for low-income residents. A useful resource for communities is the Low-Income Solar Policy Guide, developed by GRID Alternatives, Vote Solar, and the Center for Social Inclusion, which includes examples of successful policies and available incentives. The Department of Energy’s web page on Low-Income Community Energy Solutions is another helpful resource.
To local governments that are just getting started, it can be a daunting process to develop solar energy plans while also achieving equity goals. SolSmart can help communities structure this approach under the framework of meeting national solar criteria. The program offers no-cost technical assistance to any municipality, county, or regional organization seeking SolSmart designation. Our team can help a community identify priorities and strategies for solar energy as part of this technical assistance process. Any community interested in learning more about SolSmart can contact us today!
View the SolSmart equity guidance for local governments here.