Non-profits get creative to expand the benefits of solar to low- and moderate-income people

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Efforts are underway across the country to extend the benefits of solar to low- and moderate-income people who might otherwise not be able to take part in the solar revolution.

One program, in Massachusetts, will extend financial and technical help to community development agencies that need help navigating the often-daunting development process. A second program, in New York, leverages the cost savings generated by rooftop solar to provide free Wi-Fi to residents in two dozen buildings.

Massachusetts outreach

The Massachusetts Solar Technical Assistance Retrofits (STAR) program announced $10 million in funds for up to 3 MW in solar projects on affordable housing units. Financial and technical help will be given to community development agencies looking to cut costs through the savings of rooftop solar.

STAR saids those in low-income areas are disproportionately affected by climate change, and that the often-tight budgets of these residences has led to a lag in solar adoption. The program is intended to support more equitable access to clean energy for community members who may not have the capital to invest in solar on their own.

Researching the complex financial and technical aspects of solar projects for numerous multi-unit buildings can be a heavy lift for an already stretched housing agency staff. The program seeks to address this issue by acting as a guiding force through the decision-making process.

In the initial stage, the campaign collected over $40,000 in donations, which were distributed as grants to 15 participating organizations. This allowed the staff to devote time to gather data for feasibility studies, including collecting utility bills, roof ages, and square footages.

Design plans and eventual installation will be performed by Resonant Energy, a group that focuses on deploying solar in underserved communities.

Most participants are expected to opt for a power purchase agreement which includes no upfront cost. The $10 million in financing will be used to pay for solar system construction, and the investors will own the completed installations. They will then sell the generated power to the housing agencies at a discounted rate.

STAR projects $250,000 in total annual savings across the portfolio of projects.

In most applications, the solar projects will serve common areas such as hallways, elevators, an laundry rooms. The expected energy cost savings will generally be used to reinvest in upgrading the community windows and other amenities, said STAR.

Some projects will be structured to allow residents to take a more direct share in the benefits. Credits created by excess generation for common spaces would be passed on in the form of utility bill savings for those living in the building, says Resonant.

STAR said the next step for these agencies is to update older buildings and replace oil and gas burning heating systems with energy efficient electrical systems, as well as making other building efficiency upgrades such as insulation and LED lighting.

Free Wi-Fi in Brooklyn

Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is a New York City neighborhood that struggles to have a steady source of internet access, as almost 40% of its households do not have Wi-Fi. The pandemic has necessitated the use of internet as schooling and work go online, and while students were loaned laptops for distance learning, connectivity has been a big issue across New York.

The Workforce Housing Group, an affordable housing development organization, has come up with a creative solution to the problem: free Wi-Fi for its residents.

The Wi-Fi is being funded with a NY Green Bank loan to the Workforce Housing Group to cover the cost of 18 independent solar arrays, providing power to 24 buildings. The loan was structured so that payments directly match the projected utility bill payments to ConEdison.

The expected excess savings generated by the cheaper solar power and related incentives will then work towards paying for the Morgan Stanley-backed loan for the buildout of new high-speed internet infrastructure.

The project is engineered, designed, and installed by New York-based Premier Solar.

Workforce Housing Group founding member John Crotty said the first panels will be installed in late July, with the project expected to reach completion before the end of the year.

NY Green Bank, a division of New York State Energy Research & Development has a $1.2 billion portfolio of financing projects in solar, wind, biofuel, energy efficiency, agriculture, fuel cells, and more.

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