White House initiative aims to broaden Americans’ access

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 19, 2015

The White House announced new partners in a federal initiative to broaden Americans’ access to solar power — particularly in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods — with more than $500 million in pledged funds.

The program is part of President Obama’s broader climate plan heading into the Paris climate negotiations. Last week, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said lower costs of key technologies like solar — enabled by research and development — would be a “central theme” from the United States at the U.N. climate conference (E&ENews PM, Nov. 13).

Specifically, the administration said today that the number of participants in the National Community Solar Partnership has nearly tripled since July, now totaling 68 businesses, organizations and universities. Those partners are pledging $545 million in 21 states to help bring solar to more than 20,000 households, according to the White House.

“Actions like the ones announced today, will help the U.S. transition to cleaner sources of energy faster and ensure the opportunity to access clean energy is available to those who need it most, putting the U.S. on a strong playing field to secure an ambitious climate agreement in Paris,” the White House said in a statement.

Announced in July, the National Community Solar Partnership is a collaboration between the Department of Energy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture, U.S. EPA, solar companies, nonprofits, and state and local leaders that allows them to share ideas and tap existing federal and state resources for solar. It was formed in response to a 2012 guide on community solar from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The partnership is aimed at building up community solar projects — with technical help from DOE and its national laboratories — so that households and businesses can pool their resources and invest in shared solar systems, saving costs on energy bills.

report from DOE last week found that various solar technologies grew exponentially in the United States over the past four years, even as costs plunged. However, the White House noted that about 50 percent of U.S. households and businesses “are renters or lack the capital and adequate roof space to install solar systems.” Community solar — with its emphasis on shared systems and pooled resources — could bring solar “to historically underserved communities,” it said.

The new partners range geographically from the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. — which is committing to installing three or more systems in the state — to San Francisco-based RE-volv, which is launching a crowdfunding platform to finance solar for nonprofits. Other partners include companies like the Clean Energy Collective — which developed a program allowing investor-owned utilities to own and rate-base community arrays without outside subsidies — and groups like the National League of Cities and the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“The fact that low- and medium-income households can participate in our nation’s clean energy revolution, and lead the way in improving their communities, is a giant step in the right direction,” said SEIA’s President and CEO Rhone Resch.

The White House announcement came on the heels of a $22.7 million funding announcement yesterday from the Department of Energy that it would try to lower the cost of installed solar energy systems to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour by the end of the decade. The funding will go toward a range of solar technology projects, including a web-based application that calculates the solar potential of a building’s roof and a “solar permit generator” that helps developers navigate a barrage of documents.