New Biden program will bring solar to low-income families

The administration plans to build a digital platform to connect low-income households with community-solar projects that can save them money on their electric bills.

A woman in a blue jacket smiles as she tours a solar farm
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, left, and Sen. John Hickenlooper tour a community solar garden in Aurora, Colorado. (Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
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The Biden-Harris administration is flexing its solar muscle. 

On July 27, it unveiled a new initiative to expand access to cheap clean energy in the form of community solar among those most vulnerable to the soaring costs of fossil fuels: low-income households. 

Unlike the big climate provisions recently — and miraculously — resurrected in the Senate, this is a program that the administration can implement without Congress’ signoff. The initiative will be jointly run by the Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services.

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Every American community, especially those that face disproportionately higher energy burdens, deserves the economic and health benefits that come with increased access to affordable clean energy,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in a statement.

Community solar gives customers that access. Instead of footing the bill to install solar on their own roofs, customers subscribe to an offsite community-solar project and earn credits that are applied to their electric bills, ideally resulting in overall energy-cost savings. (Read our community solar explainer to find out more about how it works.)

The new program will develop and test a digital platform to connect participants in the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to community-solar options near where they live. Run by Health and Human Services, LIHEAP helps more than 5 million households pay for heating, cooling and weatherizing their homes each year. 

Five states — Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York — as well as Washington, D.C. will test-drive the community-solar platform. The selected states all have policies that support community-solar development for low-income customers.

The DOE is crowdsourcing recommendations on the development of the community-solar platform until Aug. 31.

Raking in the solar savings 

The digital platform is expected to be ready for testing in participating states in mid-2023. It’s intended to feature vetted community-solar projects, Politico reports, which will provide guaranteed electricity savings for subscribers.

Drilling down, the program aims to save customers 20 percent on their electricity in Illinois, New Jersey, New York and New Mexico — and a whopping 50 percent in Washington, D.C. and Colorado. 

The DOE anticipates that the program will be a boon not only to low-income subscribers but also to companies and other organizations that develop community-solar projects. That’s because the initiative could expand the community-solar market, boost investor confidence in low-income community solar programs, and reduce customer-acquisition and management costs, since low-income subscribers will prequalify through LIHEAP

An app that connects LIHEAP customers with community-solar projects is what the market needs,” said Richard Caperton, VP of policy and marketing development at Arcadia, an energy data company and the nation’s largest community-solar provider. 

For instance, a number of states support community-solar projects that require a certain percentage of subscribers to be low-income. But the requirements for verifying that customers qualify can be pretty onerous,” said Caperton. No customer wants to actually show somebody from Arcadia their tax returns.” 

So if the new platform helps community-solar companies find these qualifying customers, that would be really beneficial,” according to Caperton.

Shaun Keegan, CEO of Solar Landscape, a company with one of the country’s largest community-solar portfolios designed for lower-income customers, also applauded the program’s creation. He emphasized that community solar can deliver significant savings to customers. New Jersey’s community-solar program has already demonstrated the value it brings to lower-income families,” he said. On average, our [low- and moderate-income] subscribers save 20 percent — more than $200 a year — off their bills when they sign up for community-solar electricity.”

The Biden-Harris administration says that the program could trigger the development of 100 gigawatts of community solar, according to The Verge — a wildly ambitious amount. That would be a staggering leap from community solar’s current installed capacity in the U.S. of about 3.2 gigawatts, and approaching the 126 gigawatts of all U.S. installed solar capacity.

But for Americans now struggling to pay their electric bills, even a modest increase in community solar could make a big difference.

Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media.