Community solar is a critical tool in the policy toolbox for ensuring that communities and individuals who face technical or financial barriers to renewable energy are able to enjoy the cost-saving and environmental benefits of solar. Community solar, or shared renewable, programs enable multiple customers to participate in and share the economic benefits of a solar energy system or other renewable energy project. 

Despite being a tool to expand access to solar energy, most community solar programs have historically had low levels of participation among low-income customers, who face high home energy burdens and barriers to clean, renewable energy adoption. 

A new program currently being proposed in New York State aims to improve the number of low-income customers who benefit from community solar cost savings. IREC had the opportunity to inform the development of the program and in today’s blog post we explore the program’s design, which differs from most existing community solar programs in several key aspects and could serve as a model for other states. 

Improving Access to the Benefits of Clean Energy 

Not everyone is able to invest in rooftop solar, including renters and low- and moderate-income (LMI) residents. As more and more states develop ambitious climate and clean energy goals, it’s essential to ensure that everyone—including underserved and disadvantaged communities, and those who have been most severely impacted by the fossil fuel economy—can access and enjoy the benefits of clean and renewable energy.

A number of states in the U.S. have launched community solar programs in recent years from coast to coast and in between. The programs range in scope and program design, but a common theme prevails: due to a host of challenges, including project financing and reaching customers, most of these programs have not yet effectively served LMI communities. 

Innovative policy and regulatory tools are essential to developing community solar programs that reach LMI customers. IREC has developed several resources that identify barriers and recommend best practices for LMI community solar programs, including Policy Guidelines and Model Provisions for LMI-focused shared renewables programs, and a Checklist for Voluntary Utility-Led Community Solar Programs, which includes considerations for this audience.  More recently, we were excited to have the opportunity to contribute to the development of an innovative new program being developed in New York state. 

A New Model for Community Solar in New York State

The New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA) and the utility National Grid recently filed a joint petition (PDF) with the New York Public Service Commission for approval of a new community solar program. The program is designed to provide utility bill savings and access to renewable energy to low-income customers. IREC worked with NYSERDA and National Grid to survey community solar programs and best practices from other states, as well as emerging federal policies, to inform the development of the petition.

The proposed Expanded Solar For All, or E-SFA, program seeks to help more low-income customers access the benefits of community solar by streamlining customer eligibility and enrollment. It also aims to create synergy between existing state and utility programs, including incentives for community solar development. The E-SFA program would connect customers from National Grid’s existing Energy Assistance Program (EAP), which provides bill assistance to income-qualifying customers, directly to community solar projects in its service territory. 

By essentially automating customer enrollment through an opt-out process, the E-SFA program would offer solar developers potentially substantial savings on customer acquisition and turnover, and those savings could then be passed on to customers in the form of a guaranteed monthly bill discount. 

Once fully implemented, the E-SFA program aims to provide approximately $10 per month in electric bill savings for up to 159,000 customers, while supporting approximately 600 MWdc of community solar. 

E-SFA Program Builds Upon Existing Shared Renewables and Energy Assistance Programs

New York established a community solar program called Community Distributed Generation (CDG) in 2015, allowing customers and businesses unable to install solar on their own property the opportunity to participate in a local CDG project. Those subscribers receive monetary credits on their utility bill for a portion of the power produced by their CDG project. 

In parallel, NYSERDA has launched a low-income CDG program called Solar for All, providing no-cost subscriptions to eligible households, with estimated savings of between $5 and $15 per month. Low-income customer participation, however, has remained elusive in New York’s CDG market. NYSERDA’s existing Solar for All program, which targeted 10,000 participating low-income CDG customers by the end of 2020, had only 3,615 subscribers as of January of this year. 

Surveyed customers have indicated that income verification requirements to participate in Solar for All were burdensome or time-consuming. NYSERDA therefore concluded that simplified application processes will be essential to boost low-income participation in energy programs. Accordingly, NYSERDA and National Grid have proposed to use an opt-out enrollment model for National Grid’s eligible EAP customers in the E-SFA program. 

Critically, the savings participating E-SFA receive will be additive on top of existing energy bill assistance programs. Likewise, these savings will not affect customers’ eligibility for other forms of home energy assistance. This enrollment process should also shrink the customer acquisition costs faced by traditional community solar projects, resulting in more savings that can be passed on to customers. 

If approved, the program would become the largest low-income community solar program in the country, and could serve as a new pathway for expanding solar access to low-income households in other states and utility territories.

As the use of solar and other forms of clean and renewable energy grows, it will be essential to ensure that we build a just and inclusive energy economy. Community solar programs designed to reduce participation barriers for LMI residents are a step in the right direction. 

Notice of this proposed rulemaking was published in the New York State Register on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, beginning a 60-day public comment period. The notice and information on how to submit comments on this issue can be found at this The notice and information on how to submit coments on this issue can be found at this link on page 27. The comment period ends August 22, 2021.