U.S. at ‘turning point’ for solar — White House adviser

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The White House and several groups across the country are making a renewed push to increase the use of solar power in low-income communities.

During a briefing on Capitol Hill this morning, presidential climate adviser Dan Utech said renewable energy was at a “turning point.” He said the administration would continue pushing for cleaner energy and action against global warming “with everything we’ve got.”

Utech said tax credits that Congress extended last year would make it easier for states to rely on solar and other renewables to comply with the Clean Power Plan, if the courts don’t strike it down. Without the credits, switching from coal to gas would be more attractive.

The administration, pro-renewable lawmakers and several lobbying groups are particularly keen on promoting solar in low-income communities because of the potential to address climate change and cut emissions, as well as create jobs.

There are an estimated 22 million owner-occupied households defined as low income, but a small percentage of them contain solar. The industry, Utech said, is adding jobs much faster than the rest of the economy.

High upfront costs are a key barrier for solar. Sometimes residents are not in a high enough tax bracket to benefit from the federal investment tax credit. Other times a low credit score blocks them from participation in power purchase agreements. Additionally, more than 50 percent of residents nationwide live in multi-unit buildings or homes with shared roofs.

Utech joined leaders from GRID Alternatives, Vote Solar and the Center for Social Inclusion in endorsing the groups’ new online “low-income solar policy guide” to help community leaders and policymakers find appropriate solutions, like green banks, solar gardens or on-bill financing.

A parallel event in New York included representatives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Environmental Defense Fund and Connecticut Green Bank.

The online tool highlights examples, including a low-income community in North Minneapolis that is adding a 202-kilowatt solar array this year for a temple and 40 households by giving participating customers a pay-as-you-go option.

In another example, Massachusetts provided an incentive for low-income customers to receive a higher ratio of solar renewable energy credits under state law.

“Fully enabling low-income solar participation requires policies and programs that are specifically designed to address the unique barriers faced by these communities. This guide provides an overview of those barriers, as well as underlying principles for successful programs,” the online tool says.

Utech highlighted the administration’s efforts to bring solar to underserved communities, like the National Community Solar Partnership, which was launched last year by the Department of Energy, U.S. EPA and other federal agencies to assess market barriers and speed up deployment.

“We’ve got a huge opportunity here,” Utech said. “Over the next 10 to 15 years, we’re going to see an explosion” with solar.

The administration is developing guidance to unlock property assessed clean energy (PACE) financing and is expanding a program to train military personnel for solar jobs, Utech said.

There will be more work on PACE financing, which allows property owners to use municipal bonds to finance clean energy, from the administration later this year, he said. Last November, the White House announced that participants in a multi-agency community solar program had tripled (Greenwire, Nov. 17, 2015).

Lawmakers like Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) are also pressing the issue. Cárdenas introduced H.R. 3041 last year to provide loans and grants for solar installations in low-income areas.

With current budget constraints, action is going to be difficult, Cárdenas said. Budget cutting is “all we do around here,” he said of Congress. “If you are at the table, you are part of the menu.”