Teams aim to remove barriers to solar in underserved places

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Teams aim to remove barriers to solar in underserved places

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A program by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory will provide financial and technical support to teams across the country looking to expand access to solar for underserved communities.

Eight research teams from across the country will work with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop models to improve uptake of solar energy in underserved communities.

The program is part of the third round of NREL's Solar Energy Innovation Network (SEIN), which began in 2017. The first two rounds focused on improving the reliability and affordability of renewable energy and novel applications of solar energy and distributed energy resources.

In the third round, three teams will work to remove financial and technical barriers to equitable commercial-scale solar, while the remaining five teams will focus on the residential segment. The program will last for 15 months.

Demographic disparities

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Solar adoption skews toward higher-income households and communities, according to research by the Department. of Energy and its Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory. In 2020, the median solar adopter's household income in the U.S. was $115,000, compared to the overall median income of $63,000.

Low-to-moderate income households do adopt solar, however. Households earning less than 120% of their area's median income made up 41% of solar adopters in 2020. Solar adopter median incomes have dropped from about $138,000 in 2010.

Solar adopters also tend to live in rural, majority-white neighborhoods, primarily speak English, and have higher education levels, according to the Berkley Lab research.

“By providing direct funding, technical expertise, and facilitated stakeholder engagement all in one program, SEIN helps teams effectively identify, research, and respond to the unique barriers and needs of communities that have seen limited solar adoption to date,” said Eric Lockhart, who leads SEIN at NREL.

Discussion about equity in solar deployment has dominated net energy metering reform in states like California and Florida. Utility-backed groups have advocated for the phasedown, or outright elimination, of credits for surplus energy generated by rooftop solar customers, arguing that non-solar customers unfairly subsidize those systems.

In California, the largest solar market in the U.S., regulators have paused a decision on net metering that solar advocates said would have gutted the industry following public outcry.

And in Florida, lawmakers recently approved legislation that will ultimately do away with net metering all together. Solar supporters have asked Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, to veto the bill.

Net metering is seen as a crucial piece to broader solar deployment, as compensation for excess energy sent to the electric grid reduces the time needed for homeowners to pay for their system.

Meet the teams

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Project descriptions provided by NREL

Lead Organization: Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute

Location: Austin and Carrizo Springs, Texas

This team is identifying opportunities to more equitably deploy solar to properties owned or rented by families in underserved communities by leveraging utilities’ low-income energy efficiency programs and Weatherization Assistance Program funding. This team is collaborating to identify, refine, demonstrate, and evaluate strategies to widen access to residential rooftop solar among underserved communities and develop guidelines and implementation approaches to apply identified pathways.

Lead Organization: ReThink Energy Florida Inc.

Location: Tallahassee, Florida

This team plans to unlock the market potential for solar PV in low-to-moderate income (LMI) neighborhoods by evaluating technical potential, economic feasibility, and financial tools and programs. The project aims to provide a pathway to install solar at a neighborhood scale that can be replicated in other LMI neighborhoods through awareness of solar benefits in underserved communities and business awareness of LMI funding opportunities.

Lead Organization: Energy Trust of Oregon

Location: Portland, Gresham, Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Tigard, Oregon

The team aims to address solar deployment barriers and disproportionately low solar awareness in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities of Portland, Gresham, Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Tigard, Oregon. The team will work to identify pathways for installing solar on BIPOC homes through innovative incentives for solar-related energy retrofits and home upgrades. The team will also build a network of BIPOC "Solar Ambassadors" to educate and build capacity in their respective communities.

Lead Organization: Pecan Street Inc.

Location: Austin, Texas

This team aims to address energy affordability and reliability in communities that have historically been negatively impacted by discriminatory housing practices and unjust lending programs. The team will develop community-based research models and leverage peer-to-peer information exchange to define pathways for adapting and expanding low-to-zero-percent interest solar loans for underserved neighborhoods of Austin, Texas.

Lead Organization: Houston Advanced Research Center

Location: Port Arthur, Texas

This project team aims to address the lack of knowledge, affordability, and capital barriers to equitable commercial-scale solar. The team will develop an effective, replicable, and scalable approach to implement solar-plus-storage microgrids that build community wealth in underserved neighborhoods of Port Arthur, Texas.

Lead Organization: Salt Lake City Department of Sustainability

Location: Salt Lake City, Utah

This team will develop a framework to increase the uptake of commercial solar and storage in underserved communities by engaging community and business stakeholders, hosting community listening sessions, and developing culturally relevant outreach tools and resources that address solar market barriers and economically entrenched energy injustices. Resources will include findings from listening sessions, solar and storage case studies, battery storage incentive program recommendations, and best practices for financing commercial solar.

Lead Organization: Lake Street Council

Location: Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota

This team is engaging minority-owned businesses in underserved neighborhoods to increase solar deployment. The team is collaborating to apply human-centered design to understand stakeholders’ lived experiences, gain insights, and challenge assumptions. The team is co-creating solutions to reduce inequities in solar adoption, increase business resilience, and build capacity and leadership to sustain ongoing community action.

Lead Organization: RE-volv

Location: Multiple

This team aims to increase solar adoption by houses of worship led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) by strengthening existing partnerships and scaling up successful efforts. The team will streamline the solar project pipeline of identifying promising locations, presenting proposals, financing projects, and highlighting successes.