Low-Income Community Solar Sharing Gets a Foothold

The following was posted by Ann Berwick, former chair of the Massachusetts Public Utilities Commission and a GN Board Member, on Sunday, Dec 18 on southcoasttoday.com and is reprinted here with permission.

Whale oil once lit the world, but was not sustainable as a fuel source. The sun and the wind are, and New Bedford is taking full advantage of both. The city is going gangbusters on renewable power, as a home for the new U.S. offshore wind industry and as an enthusiastic proponent of solar power. Here’s another idea the city may want to consider.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren recently announced that Newton will build a solar canopy over a Department of Public Works parking lot and share the benefits with low-income residents. This ground-breaking program could be a model for other cities and towns in Massachusetts.

Newton is not seen as a “low-income” city, but one in eight Newton households lives on less than $25,000 a year, some of them seniors living on monthly social security checks. Eleven percent of the city’s school children live below the poverty line. Newton is relatively wealthy but, like most communities, income inequality is a major issue, and low-income, vulnerable people have to make choices every day between paying their electric bill and purchasing other necessities.

Mayor Warren’s program, “Community Solar Share Initiative,” is designed to help with the electric bills of low-income residents. A partnership between Eversource and Action for Boston Community Development, CoSSI appears to be the first low-income community solar share project in the country.

Here’s how it works.

The city contracts with a solar developer to build the solar canopy. Under this “power purchase agreement,” the developer owns the energy and sells some of it back to the city at a discount. The discount comes in the form of net metering credits that can be applied to lower the cost of Newton’s electric bill. In this regard, the program is like many other projects across the state, in which municipalities use the proceeds from solar installations to reduce their own energy costs.

What’s different about Newton’s program is that the city will share the net metering credits with its low-income residents. Massachusetts’ solar regulations allow net metering credits to be transferred by one customer to another. In this case, Newton will transfer its net metering credits to about 1,250 low-income households, which will see their electricity bills fall by about $50 annually. New Bedford and other commonwealth cities can do this too.

This model program should be interesting to other communities for a number of reasons.

First, it’s easy to implement and communities are free to decide how much they want to share, and with whom. Newton could have chosen to provide bigger discounts to fewer households, for example. But the mayor wanted the program to apply equally to any low-income households in the city that had already qualified for the utility discount rate.

Fifty dollars a year may not seem like much, but, as the president and CEO of ABCD, John J. Drew said, the benefits “will go to the people …; who live week to week, and whose Social Security checks will go up by only four dollars next year. So $50 is a big deal.”

Second, the program gives residents who can’t install solar panels the opportunity to share in solar power from a solar installation. Many low-income residents rent, and, even if they own, they likely can’t afford to install their own panels, which can run upwards of $15,000. Newton is looking at other ways to provide access to solar power for the estimated 75 percent of residences that cannot accommodate panels, either because their roofs are unsuitable, their homes not oriented toward the sun, or because of excessive shading.

Third, the solar legislation passed earlier this year provides that net metering credits for municipal projects like Newton’s are worth more than net metering credits for private “community solar” projects. So this project actually provides more savings for the city to share with low-income residents than if it were structured as a for-profit community solar project.

Finally, apart from the program’s benefits for low-income residents, canopies on parking lots are themselves a good thing. Canopies shelter vehicles, which means they are not broiling hot when parked in the summer, and not covered with snow and ice in the winter. These are mainly matters of convenience, but they save on gasoline as well. And parking lot canopies provide good sites for electric vehicle charging stations powered by solar energy.

Just a week after Newton announced its program, the New York Times ran a story about a related plan. New York’s electric utility, Consolidated Edison, has proposed installing solar panels on its own rooftops – warehouses, offices, garages, substations- and sharing the benefits with low-income customers. The flat top of Con Ed’s warehouse in Queens alone could hold thousands of solar panels and provide benefits to many homes.

Municipal and utility programs like Newton’s and Con Ed’s are models for sharing solar power benefits with customers who are otherwise unable to afford them. Both are hopeful beacons, especially for cities like New Bedford that are leading the way toward a clean energy future.