Washington, D.C., Connecticut and more than a dozen other states are investing in programs to make clean energy available to low- and moderate-income households and to give jobs to people like Steven Donerson, a retired soldier and musician whose life fell into a tailspin after the economy tanked in 2008.
Donerson, 51, lost his marriage, his home in Washington, D.C., and his job as a concierge director. “My whole way of life,” he says. He was still struggling two years ago when he entered a 12-week training program to learn how to install solar panels. Afterward he got a job with Grid Alternatives Mid-Atlantic, which ran the program.
"It’s one of the best experiences that I’ve had working in my life," he said. ”It’s not like working. It’s like I’m doing a service for the community and I’m getting paid for it. So it doesn’t seem like a job."
Donerson was on hand recently when the District celebrated the 100th solar installation under Solar Works DC, a clean energy and job training program targeting low- and moderate-income residents. It is part of the District's ambitious goal of getting 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2032. By then, through its Solar for All program, it also wants to bring solar energy to 100,000 low- to moderate-income families, whether homeowners or renters living in multi-family buildings. All are expected to see a 50-percent savings on their electricity bills over 15 years.
"We have an example for the Congress, a concrete example, of how it really is possible to create programs that expand green infrastructure and address income inequality," D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said.
"No other jurisdictions our size anywhere in the nation, not New York, Hawaii or Los Angeles, has made this type of commitment to both decarbonize our electricity and to do so in a way that supports and looks out for our most vulnerable residents," she said.
Across the country, the clean energy industry is trying different ways to reach low- and moderate-income residents, from innovative funding to access to community solar projects, according to Warren Leon, the executive director of the Clean Energy States Alliance. The alliance has published a directory of initiatives throughout the United States.
“We’re still somewhat in an experimental phase,” Leon said. “And part of the issue is it’s not so easy to do because there are a lot of obstacles.”
The most obvious is that it is difficult to afford a solar system, but there are others too, he said. Low- and moderate-income residents are more often renters; if they do own their homes, the roof might not be in a condition to hold solar panels.
If solar energy is not implemented in a way that reduces inequality, it risks losing the support of a public that perceives it benefiting only the well-to-do, he warned.
“Clean energy is transforming the electricity system in this country and it’s a big engine of economic development and job growth,” he said. “It’s important that this transformation take place in a way that includes all segments of society and especially those communities that are most in need of jobs, economic development and the lower electric bills that can come from embracing clean energy.”
The District’s Solar Works DC was developed by the city’s Department of Energy and Environmental and the Department of Employment Services. In two years, it has trained more than 100 people, creating jobs in the mid-Atlantic region and helping to ensure the District meets its clean energy goals.
"Get Up on the Roof and Learn About It"
“Not only are we deploying solar in lower income communities and preserving affordable housing in D.C., we’re giving people an opportunity to see what it’s like to be part of this clean energy transition," said Grid Alternatives Mid-Atlantic’s executive director, Nicole Steele. "Get up on the roof and learn about it, get in the classroom and learn about all of the components that go into a solar installation and be part of the solar industry.”
Grid Alternatives Mid-Atlantic installs the solar systems for free for homeowners whose income qualifies. They lease the systems without cost and receive 100 percent of the energy produced. A single person in a household can make up to $65,650 in gross income. For a family of eight, the amount is $123,750.
Solar for All is financed through the District's Renewable Energy Development Fund from payments made by Washington, D.C.’s, electricity provider, Pepco, as an alternative to meeting renewable energy goals.
The mayor's budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year includes $1.3 million for Solar Works DC, $12 million for Solar for All, and $25 million for solar energy investments in the city's property and community solar projects.
Elsewhere, Connecticut has a program in which solar panels are leased to low- and moderate-income families through a non-profit organization called Inclusive Prosperity Capital, which was spun off from the Connecticut Green Bank and PosiGen Solar and Energy Efficiency. PosiGen started in New Orleans as the city rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina and found that thousands of homeowners who wanted to install solar panels and make their homes more energy efficient but could not.
“They paired solar with energy efficiency which is really when you start to see drastic reductions in energy burden for the families who need it most,” said Inclusive Prosperity Capital’s CEO Kerry O’Neill.
Energy costs have dropped to 3 percent or 3.5 percent of income, which is in line with what more affluent families typically pay, she said.
The non-profit also analyzed residents’ credit worthiness across the state. Connecticut has as many homeowners in lower incomes who can qualify for a 650 credit score, which is typically what solar financing requires, as in upper incomes, she said. In addition, PosiGen uses alternatives to traditional credit scores, measures such as whether a homeowner is current on property taxes and other data.
Since 2016, solar installations have reached parity across incomes with programs such as Solar for All that removed barriers for lower- and moderate-income residents, traditionally underserved markets that wanted clean, green energy but did not have the resources.
Other states are using solar energy plus storage in community buildings, places that can serve as shelters in case of power outages, Leon said. Maryland, for example, provides grants to developers to partly pay for the cost of installing solar panels and microgrids in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. During power outages, the so-called resiliency hubs will provide emergency heating or cooling for refrigeration of medications or milk from nursing mothers and power to recharge cell phones or computers.
Retrofitting Apartments in Chicago
A report from the federal Environmental Protection Agency highlighted 11 programs that have achieved results and have the potential to be scaled up, replicated and sustained. Among them is the Chicago-based non-profit Elevate Energy, which improves energy efficiency in multi-family buildings. It operates in 11 states, providing an energy assessment, guidance on solutions, access to financing and followup.
Anne Evens, the chief executive officer, said that in many cities more than 40 percent of families live in affordable, multifamily housing. It is more challenging to work with those buildings — and their owners and property managers — than the owner of a single-family home because often it is the tenants who are getting the benefits. The organization has to show property owners that it is in their interest to have stable tenants who can afford their heating and air conditioning bills, she said.
“It’s really important for a number of reasons,” Evens said. “Obviously if we’re going to meet our climate goals we have to deal with the carbon that’s generated when we’re heating and powering their homes, so it’s important from that perspective. But it’s also really important from a financial security perspective.”
The organization has retrofitted almost 50,000 units over the last several years, in Chicago and elsewhere.
Illinois added 1,308 solar jobs in 2018, a 37 percent increase, placing it second in the country for new solar jobs, according to a national census by the Solar Foundation. Ten trainees in Marion have just installed a solar system for a low-income homeowner through an eight-week program created under the state’s Future Energy Jobs Act. Elevate Energy partners with Grid Alternatives and others to provide the training.
The U.S. government's Fourth National Climate Assessment, mandated by Congress and released last year, warned of severe effects on the country's economy, health and environment if it does not act to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.
"People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts," the report's summary warned. "Prioritizing adaptation actions for the most vulnerable populations would contribute to a more equitable future within and across communities."
The solar panels that were turned on April 23 in the District are on top of a home owned by Dawn Fong, who has lived in her Northeast Washington house for 20 years. All of the energy from the solar panels is available first for her and her daughter’s use; then any excess goes into the power grid. Pepco provides a credit to her bill in the next month.
And after she applied for the solar panels, she learned of a job at Grid Alternatives Mid-Atlantic as an administrative assistant. She applied and was hired.
“With D.C. being a lead in the clean (energy) act, I was very curious about it and thought I would start somewhere,” Fong said.
“I’m really excited about having solar and where that leads me.”
Creating the Workforce of the Future
Grid Alternatives Mid-Atlantic is a subsidiary of a nonprofit organization started in California after the state's 2001 energy crisis. The founders, Erica Mackie and Tim Sears, engineers who were doing large-scale renewable energy projects for the private sector, wanted to make solar technology available to low-income communities.
The organization completed its first installation on a single-family home in San Francisco in 2004, and since then has compiled a record of 11,810 systems producing 49,715 kilowatts to prevent 867,149 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. It has trained 41,427 workers and saved $350 million in electricity costs for participants.
“Not only are we building a distributed power plant one rooftop at a time but we’re also creating the workforce of the future,” Mackie said. “And I think for us it's about how do you really lift up communities and especially communities on the front lines of climate injustice and economic injustice.”
Grid Alternatives now serves families in California and Colorado in addition to the Mid-Atlantic region and tribal communities throughout the country and has partners in Mexico, Nepal and Nicaragua.
"We really have this vision that we can make a transition to clean energy and we can do it a way that includes everyone and isn’t just about access but is really about deep equity," Mackie said. "It’s not about do I have access to solar panels but do I really benefit from those panels? Can I really get that job? Can I have career mobility? Can we really take back our power?"
Grid Alternatives not only installs solar panels on single-family homes, but also on multi-family affordable housing, which enables it to serve renters, and for community solar facilities, which allows someone across town to benefit from the power produced.
Mackie said she thought there was potential for Grid Alternatives expansion in areas where cities and states take the lead in policy, where policy-makers want to create clean energy that is equitable.
"Communities have always said I want to breathe cleaner air, I want to leave a world that is better for my children, I care about trash in my backyard," she said. "And I think that effort only became all the more critical in the absence of leadership at the federal level."
California has been out front in programs for all of its residents in both single and multi-family homes, Leon said. But he cautioned that smaller states do not have the resources to easily replicate California's initiatives.
Donerson, who now installs solar systems on multi-family buildings, had been intrigued since learning about Nikola Tesla, the early 20th century electrical engineer and inventor, and Tesla's early work on solar energy. He hopes to move up to become an energy inspector.
As Fong’s solar panels were activated, a crowd of installers for Grid Alternatives Mid-Atlantic cheered, among them Egan Dales, a former Marine who had received a technical degree in renewable energy and geology. He was self-employed, working as a gardener when he began looking for a short-term job a year ago.
“It was wintertime when I applied,” said Dales, who is studying for a degree in horticultural technologies. “I didn’t have a gardening job for the winter.”
“It’s going wonderful,” he said. “I feel like I’ve learned solar so fast in this amount of time.”
Across the street, a real estate broker, John Britton, watched from a house he was selling.
“Any type of vibrancy or any type of change especially something that’s either environmentally friendly or forward thinking is always a positive for the neighborhood,” he said.