SOLAR vs. POLAR, Pt. 2: How LIHEAP and the Solar Boom are Saving Money and Lives

Copy of Solar v. Polar.png

As the solar explosion continues to grow across the country, this trend has proliferated among more and more non-profits, CAAs and volunteers within those communities it benefits.  The Sierra Club reported on one such partnership with the nonprofit Rural Renewable Energy Alliance–RREAL, formed in its founder Jason Eden’s – once a LIHEAP recipient himself – own garage in 2006, where he explains it started growing after an “ever-widening group of volunteers and I found low-income households that would make suitable solar recipients. Sometimes we found them through word of mouth; sometimes we went door-to-door asking if residents were interested in a free solar heating unit with free installation. Most of those systems are still up and running. RREAL began extending its reach beyond northern Minnesota…installing hundreds of solar units for low- and moderate-income households.” (1) 

Soon, the program became so successful that two of Winter’s traditionally-coldest states half way across the country from one another – Vermont and Minnesota – partnered up after finding they had much in common where plummeting temperatures and sky-rocketing heating bills were concerned. After teaming up with fellow community energy assistance advocate with the Southeastern Vermont Community Action, Electric Light and Power Magazine reported that “when a Minnesota nonprofit partnered with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe to build a community solar array in 2017, they believed their model could scale nationally.  That theory is being tested as the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance travels east to Vermont's Windsor and Windham counties where they are working with Southeastern Vermont Community Action to provide solar power to 50 low-income households… In Vermont, one-fifth of residents experience fuel poverty, meaning they spend more than 10 percent of their income on energy.” (2)

SEVCA Director Steve Geller, who has run the LIHEAP program for the past 14 years in his area, explained that “in Vermont, the solar array will provide 50 low-income households with around $400 worth of electricity annually through what's known as virtual net metering. The credits they receive from the solar array's energy production will provide bill assistance to 50 out of a few thousand households already receiving energy assistance from SEVCA.”  His partner Jason Edens added that the program works because each local community can calibrate to precisely their needs, reasoning that “the community action agency can assign the subscription or the share to a family for one year or five years, but then have the ability to shift that capacity to a new family that is now income eligible or has moved into the service territory. It's a really elegant way for a community action agency to use those subscriptions.  By having some local control over some local capacity, it at least ensures that the community action agency or the energy assistance service provider can meet the needs of a certain percentage of its clients.  No one knows if energy assistance is going to be solvent in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years — so if we start to invest in community solar on behalf of the community action agencies, we can build the capacity of those agencies to continue to provide energy assistance for decades.” (3)

 The Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office even offers a $5 million prize for the Solar in Your Community Challenge to “to incentivize the development of new approaches to expand access to solar energy” according to Solar Builder Magazine, spotlighting the May 17 – Oct 18 competition season that “resulted in some really cool approaches to improve solar access for nonprofits, faith-based organizations, state and local governments, and low- and moderate-income communities…CARE was led by the Denver Housing Authority (DHA), which developed, owned, and operated off-site solar arrays to power DHA’s multifamily affordable housing buildings. As the guarantor of the power purchase agreement, DHA was able to ease financiers’ potential concerns about lending to projects comprised of LMI households. DHA worked with Xcel Energy, the local utility, to develop the projects and apply the savings to the energy bills of LMI residents in DHA’s buildings.  The team installed 2 MW of solar that benefited 764 LMI households, saving them approximately 20% on their energy bills, or nearly $3 million in savings.”  Notably, the aforementioned Rural Energy Energy Alliance came in second place with a $200,000 prize they re-invested back into their Solar efforts after their success where “107 households benefited from the project and, on average, saved 22.3% of their utility bill.” (4)




2. / 3.