Getting Solar Power to the Rural Communities That Need It Most

Adapting policies and supporting innovation could get more solar-power production to lower-income communities, where cost savings could have their biggest impact, a new report says.

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Families that could benefit the most from lower energy bills are also the least able to afford the up-front cost of installing solar-power systems that could reduce their monthly electricity bill.

Policy changes could allow innovative rural organizations to help low- and moderate-income communities participate in the expanding market for solar energy, a new report says.

“I never would have heard of Backus, Minnesota (population approximately 300), if there wasn’t this really cool organization here working on renewable energy for rural people,” said Erica Bjelland, program development specialist for the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL). “That’s one of the best parts of the organization. We keep people here, and we bring people here, all focused around solar energy.”

Bjelland came to Backus and RREAL from rural Iowa through AmeriCorps. “We advocate for making solar assistance more of a part of the functioning energy assistance programs, not taking dollars away from anyone being served by energy assistance programs, but installing solar arrays so that more funds can go to serve more families in need,” Bjelland said. “Every year, there’s people that need the energy assistance program but there isn’t enough funding to cover everyone.”

(Photo from the report, “Solar with Justice: Strategies for Powering Up Under-Resourced Communities and Growing an Inclusive Solar Market.”)

RREAL was one of numerous rural organizations and projects featured in a report, “Solar with Justice: Strategies for Powering Up Under-Resourced Communities and Growing an Inclusive Solar Market.” The report highlights policies and projects to guide the implementation of solar in less affluent communities to ensure long-term economic, equity, and public health benefits.

“Solar energy can reduce electricity costs and attract further investments, yet disadvantaged communities chronically lack access to the booming solar economy,” the report states. “Financing challenges, limited policy vehicles to support project development, and other obstacles put it out of reach of many working families.”

The report looks at solar projects in both rural and urban areas, gathering perspectives from more than 90 solar affordability experts across the industry. It is the “first of its kind to assemble a diverse team to explore solar in under-resourced communities, focusing on the voices and insights from community organization leaders across the U.S., and presenting concrete, actionable recommendations.”

Recommendations include:

  • Minimize financial risks for low- and moderate-income households: These households need guaranteed savings because they often do not have a cushion to withstand financial setbacks.
  • Create partnerships with trusted community organizations: Local groups can best assess ways to meet community needs and get people engaged.
  • Increase financing options: More effective funding is crucial to building out solar economies in underserved communities that lack financial resources.
  • Bolster consumer protections: Leaders should provide education to ensure that low- and moderate-income customers get tangible benefits from solar.

“Innovative solar projects focused on serving low- to moderate-income communities, especially people of color, will ensure that affordable, clean, and resilient energy is accessible to all,” said Rudi Navarra, director of investments at The Solutions Project, in a press release. “Investors must recognize the social and market benefits. Communities that are most vulnerable to pollution, service disruption, and high electricity costs – from Native lands to urban areas to rural service territories – are able to determine their own energy fate.”

RREAL’s former director, Jason Edens, was one of the interviewed solar experts.

“RREAL started back in 2000 when our [Edens] qualified for low-income energy assistance (LIHEAP, the federal Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program),” Bjelland said. “He heard about a solar array in the Twin Cities that was being thrown away for aesthetic reasons. He literally dumpster dived, installed the solar array on his house here in Backus and was able to save enough on his energy bill to not have to worry as much about energy assistance.”

Bjelland said by partnering with local Habitat for Humanity and the Community Action Agencies, “we don’t need to reinvent that wheel. The people who need assistance are already identified, and we can focus on serving them through the existing infrastructure while adding solar to the overall support system.”

The report highlights numerous efforts to develop solar projects in low and moderate income rural communities. In addition to RREAL, highlighted rural efforts include:

  • The Energy Trust of Oregon—the initiative provides grants for deploying solar to benefit low-income Oregonians. In one grant-funded project in rural Southern Oregon, Energy Trust assisted the nonprofit NeighborWorks Umpqua with building a 12-kilowatt, on-site rooftop solar installation in the shared community building of a manufactured home park. The energy savings from the solar buildout are shared with low-income tenants, who receive an average of 25 percent savings on their monthly electric bills. This program is paired with existing energy efficiency programs that provide education, resources, monitoring, consultation and upgrades to the residents.
  • Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation—the nonprofit economic development group serves the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota, where at least half of the approximately 30,000 Oglala Lakota indigenous people live below the Federal poverty level. The organization is building a 34-acre community adhering to stringent sustainability and land stewardship objectives and rooted in indigenous Lakota values. The project is constructing energy and water-efficient buildings, including single-family homes, a 12-unit mixed-income apartment building and community center. The project includes 14 3.7-kilowatt solar installations, one 61.6-kilowatt solar installation and one 24-kilowatt installation that includes battery storage. The project has been financed in part through in-kind donations, grants and institutional funder support from the South Dakota Development Housing Authority and the Solutions Project.
  • Native Renewables—a nonprofit that supports renewable energy development throughout the Navajo Nation, where tens of thousands of rural residents live without grid-tied electricity. The organization helps homes on the vast reservation switch from diesel or gas generators to off-the-grid solar arrays that can save approximately 70 percent on energy costs. Native Renewables provides an introduction to solar and energy basics, how to calculate energy loads, energy-efficient appliances and off-the-grid system installation and leasing. Native Renewables provides training sessions and large training events on the technical aspects of PV systems. They also engage young people on this topic in schools and museums as part of a STEM education program. Native Renewables is training 10 residents through an 8- to 10-week intensive program, with a plan to eventually train 50 installers who will have specific expertise in working in expansive rural areas.

“Solar with Justice” was made possible with funding from the Nathan Cummings Foundation. The report was released by the Clean Energy States Alliance with support from the Jackson State University Department of Urban and Regional Planning, the Partnership for Southern Equity/Advancing Equity and Opportunity, the University of Michigan School for Environment & Sustainability, and The Solutions Project.

Disclosure: The Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder, receives financial support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

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