Pilot project brings rooftop solar to low-income households in Ohio

The initiative in Cleveland aims to find out how much money people can save with solar panels and bring solar to communities that haven’t previously had access. 

A Black woman and three Black children in winter coats smile in front of a small blue bungalow with holiday decorations
The Allen family at an official switch-flipping ceremony at their home in December 2022 (Kathiann M. Kowalski)
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This story was first published by the Energy News Network.

The new year is bringing energy bill savings to Kassy Allen and others in Cleveland’s first rooftop solar program designed specifically for low- and moderate-income families.

City leaders and others joined Allen’s family for an official switch-flipping ceremony at her year-old home late last month. Despite gray skies and chilly temperatures, the newly installed solar panels on the roof started producing power right away. On a yearly basis, the panels should offset Allen’s electric bills by nearly 60%.

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The Cleveland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and Climate Justice, Solar United Neighbors and Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity worked together on the pilot project to put solar panels on up to half a dozen homes.

Funding came from the Lowenstein Foundation and Urban Sustainability Directors Network. Applicants for the first pilot project had to be at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

Allen was able to acquire her home in December 2021, thanks to work by Habitat for Humanity, which draws largely on a volunteer workforce to help build affordable housing. But energy bills can be high. Allen’s electric bill has been as much as $80 per month in the summer, she said.

To be able to also make the energy for the home as affordable as possible is a pretty incredible step,” said John Litten, executive director for Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity.

About 60% of Cleveland’s population — more than 100,000 households — currently have a high energy burden, said Sarah O’Keefe, who heads up the Cleveland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability & Climate Justice. More than 40,000 of those households have a severe energy burden. 

Average U.S. households spend about 3% of their income on energy bills. Households with a high energy burden generally spend more than 6%, and those with a severe energy burden pay more than 10%.

Solar energy can help to reduce this burden,” O’Keefe said. But first, we really need to figure out the best way to get solar on these roofs.”

Follow-up work will document what benefits the solar panels actually provide, including savings on bills, while also exploring the challenges households face in adopting solar energy. Program leaders hope the data can be used for additional pilot projects and eventually lead to wider use of solar in Cleveland’s low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.

A line of people watch a boy on a stepladder flip the switch on an electrical box mounted on a blue house
Kassy Allen’s son Kasson flips the switch to activate the new solar array. (Kathiann M. Kowalski)

An issue of equity

One of the major things is breaking the ice — getting solar into communities that have historically been left behind,” said Tristan Rader, Ohio program director for Solar United Neighbors. Doing that is crucial to a just energy transition, he said.

We have an obligation to our future generations…to leave behind a cleaner environment and a healthier planet,” said Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin, who represents Allen’s ward. We also have an obligation to our neighborhood [and] to the great people of our city of Cleveland, who often get left out of the picture when you start talking about climate change and access to clean energy.”

Allen’s home sits in a part of Cleveland that was redlined in the first half of the 20th century. Redlining suppressed property values in many communities of color and discouraged investments in those neighborhoods. Federal law outlawed redlining more than 50 years ago, but it and other systemic-racism practices continue to impact those neighborhoods, leading to lower average incomes, less educational achievement, depressed property values, elevated levels of pollution, higher rates of asthma and higher energy burdens.

So far, people who have installed solar energy at their homes tend to have higher-than-average incomes. The median household income for solar adopters was $110,000 in 2021, compared to $79,000 for families in owner-occupied homes, according to research released in November by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

That disparity has led some to argue that net metering, which compensates solar customers at a retail rate for energy they return to the grid, amounts to a subsidy for wealthy homeowners. That has been a popular talking point for renewable-energy opponents such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, of which Ohio Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, is a longtime board member. Seitz has questioned whether net metering is a fair deal for utilities. He also has been a longtime foe of Ohio’s clean energy standards, which House Bill 6 gutted in 2019.

Former FirstEnergy board member Julia Johnson has also been involved with organizations pushing similar pro-utility arguments against rooftop solar, work by the Energy and Policy Institute shows. Johnson did not run for reelection last year as part of a settlement deal in litigation stemming from Ohio’s House Bill 6 corruption scandal.

The NAACP and other advocates have called for increased solar energy access for communities of color. Advocates say policies to provide that access can lead to lower electric bills, reduced dependence on fossil fuels, opportunities for jobs, skills training and economic development, and other benefits.

A 2021 NAACP report warns against fossil fueled foolery” from misrepresentations about communities’ interests by ALEC, utility companies and fossil fuel companies. 

Next steps

As homes in the pilot project show how well solar works for residents, the office hopes to get more buy-in for future projects from stakeholders, the city and local suppliers, said Tikora Alexander, who manages grants for Cleveland’s Office of Sustainability. Her office is also working on a grant to help upgrade Cleveland’s public power grid so it can better handle renewables and battery storage.

O’Keefe and others now hope to get more funding through the Inflation Reduction Act. More than a quarter of a $27 billion fund is earmarked for competitive grants to let low-income and disadvantaged communities get or benefit from zero-emissions technologies, including rooftop solar.

Various other funding possibilities are possible as well, and eventually, programs may develop that don’t rely fully on grants. Rader noted that some money from the current Cuyahoga County Solar Co-Op project will also help support solar installations for lower-income communities.

Beyond that, the city hopes to get support from additional philanthropic groups, said Anand Natarajan, an energy strategist for the sustainability office.

We are also trying to see [if] when the homes are built, can we at least make them solar-ready and make it easier for solar to be installed,” Natarajan said.

For now, Kassy Allen takes pride in having worked on parts of her home, including installing insulation.

It’s very rewarding to know that I helped build the house and that I’m doing the best for me and my children, and for future generations in the neighborhood,” Allen said.

And with the solar panels now operational, Allen said she’s very excited to save money.”

This allows my mom more money in her pockets” to take care of the family, said her son Kasson Thompson. It will produce energy and reduce our carbon footprint. So thank you to everyone who made this possible.”

Kathiann M. Kowalski is a journalist who often writes about science and policy issues.