Sunlight is free, but getting power from solar panels remains far from it. At least for some low-income families in California, it's now affordable for the first time.
The California Public Utilities Commission Single-Family Affordable Solar Homes program, or , is a first-of-its-kind program dedicated to bringing solar energy to owners of low-income housing. The program, part of the and managed by the non-profit organization , will bring solar power to 7,000 homes by 2016, all of them designated affordable housing.
The incentives offer anywhere from $4.75 to $7.00 per watt depending on income and the size of the installation. In some cases, these incentives completely cover costs.
GRID Alternatives, which started in 2003, with a mission to provide renewable energy and energy-efficiency services, equipment and training to low-income homeowners, says that going solar saves families 75 percent or more on their electricity bills. Because low-income families spend a significant portion of their income on utilities, cutting those costs can have a large impact on the bottom line.
Ted Bardacke, a senior associate in the Green Urbanism Program for , an organization that works to create sustainable cities and buildings, said that energy and water expenses can play a huge role in some families' expenses.
"To a family of four earning $20,000 a year, saving $100 on energy and water bills a month is a significant proportion of income whereas for a family of for earning $100,000, it matters, but not as much," he said. "There is a strong financial imperative and we get the environmental benefits, as well."
GRID provides the solar panels and energy-efficiency upgrades for nothing but sweat equity. Homeowners, along with volunteers, are engaged and participate in the installation, learning valuable green job skills along the way. What isn't paid for through SASH or other rebates and incentives, the organization covers through fundraising and grants.
The SASH program has helped expand GRID's solar installations to 300 in 2010—as many as the program had in the previous five years—allowing underserved communities to embrace renewable energy. The GRID systems installed so far will save more than $8 million over the lifetime of the equipment and avoid more than 38,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, GRID has helped train nearly 4,000 volunteers, including many low-income residents, interested in green jobs.
"If we're going to have broad based adoption of both renewable energy and energy efficiency it behooves us to look at all of our markets," said Erica Mackie, a mechanical engineer who left a career working on corporate energy efficiency programs to found GRID Alternatives with a colleague of his, Tim Sears.
"You have to look at affordable housing developers and at low income home owners as a large portion of the population that we want to get on board with renewable energy," Mackie added. "Low income families can benefit from the savings and they're the ones with the most to gain in terms of breathing the pollution from traditional power plants and paying a higher portion of their take-home pay on energy bills... Using those rooftops promotes renewables as a mainstream technology, which it should be."
One challenge is identifying eligible home owners.
According to GRID, there are 1.8 million low-income homeowners in California but no central database of these homes. GRID is partnering with the California Housing Partnership Corporation to help identify them. They have also found that homes that are eligible are often in clusters. Once an installation goes in, the neighbors become more interested and want to go solar, too.
Green Affordable Development
Global Green USA is focused primarily on new, multi-family low-income housing developments in California and around the country. In general, targeted communities have been receptive to their focus on renewable energy, efficiency and choosing smart locations near public transportation and services.
"We tend to focus on the aspects of green building that will have a direct benefit to the occupant or owner of the building. What's interesting is that those span the whole gamut of green building," said Bardacke, who is also the author of Global Green USA's book Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing.
"From a location perspective, we want those buildings to be located in places that are accessible to public transit and not car-dependent because the need to own a car is a major drain on people’s pocket books," he added. "For many, monthly transportation costs can be as large as or more than rent. We think about the reduction in carbon from public transportation, but it has a big impact on low income residents."
The building in their Chula Vista, California, development, which has been open for one year, is a net exporter of energy. Beginning next year, about half of the tenants will start getting checks from San Diego Gas and Electric. Another project in San Jose gives all residents free public transportation passes as both an environmental and economic incentive.
According to Bardacke, California is not alone when it comes to low-income green housing.
Georgia, Connecticut and several other states scored higher in terms of low-income housing tax credits and incentives, according to a . And in , Global Green USA has opened the first low-income green housing developments. Now, most low-income housing projects there are following suit and incorporating sustainability.
Where California has an edge is in access to sustainable materials and components, as well as some important pieces of legislation. The Global Warming Solutions Act, or , for example, mandates reductions in greenhouse gases. With that and other policies, California makes building affordable and environmentally friendly housing more doable than elsewhere, Bardacke said.
"Costs are tight, but when green building is a goal from the beginning... the project teams can almost always figure out how to build it within the allotted budget," he said.
In fact, a recent study from found that a 2 percent upfront cost increase in making low-income housing more energy and water efficient paid for itself. Specifically, making homes Energy Star-compliant or better, iimproving water conservation and using some environmentally safe materials improved ventilation. Choosing sites close to transportation and services also had a net positive economic result.
Economics aside, the housing units studied also resulted in two tons fewer CO2 emissions annually compared to buildings without these efficiency measures.
Bardacke also said that it is important to forget our ideas about low-income housing projects.
"The image of affordable housing being run down and of poor quality is wrong," he said. "It's misguided and it’s out of date. It's often better than market housing."
(Photo via GRID Alternatives)