REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

The Obama administration announced plans Tuesday to make solar energy more affordable for renters and those living in federally subsidized housing.

President Obama must have been listening to a lot of Akon lately. Or maybe the President is sick of climate-guru Bill McKibben’s airing him out. Tuesday, Obama announced a new initiative to broaden solar power access for low-income Americans, particularly those living in public housing. The White House has set a goal of installing over 300 megawatts of renewable energy—enough to power roughly 49,000 homes, based on national megawatt home averages—on federally subsidized housing by 2020.   

The announcement was made in Baltimore, where Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings said that his office frequently fields requests from families who need help paying their electric and heating bills. The solar industry has proliferated rapidly in recent years, especially for homeowners placing photovoltaic panels on their rooftops. Net metering policies have allowed these households to drastically reduce, if not zero-out their electric bills thanks to the power generated through installed solar hardware on their rooftops.

But many low-wage earners can’t afford this equipment, even though the prices for home solar technology have dropped considerably and financing options have expanded. Renters have also largely been left out of the solar surge given they often have little control over how electricity is produced and distributed in their apartment buildings. Utility companies, shaken from the threat of solar cutting into their profits, have exploited the affordability issue as a way of raising fees in electricity bills.

The new solar initiative mitigates these problems by offering financial resources to cities and states looking to make solar more available for low-income families and non-homeowners. For one, it’s easing availability of Section 108 Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) for funding solar energy systems. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development clarified last year that these grants could be used for developing clean energy projects. The White House is hoping its efforts will stimulate growth of shared community solar projects, which allow renters to benefit from solar technology even if it’s not affixed to their own rooftops.  

(GTM Research)

The White House spotlighted in its announcement a number of community solar projects already in play through public housing authorities in dozens of cities across the nation—Cambridge, Massachusetts; Fresno, California; San Antonio, Texas; Tampa, Florida; and New York City among them. It also announced the launch of the National Community Solar Partnership—a venture between various federal agencies, and groups like the National League of Cities and Spear Point Energy, which helps cities build out solar capacity.

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