REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Earlier this month, President Obama held up the city as model for bringing solar power to low-income families. He might have spoken a bit too soon.

Earlier this month, when President Obama announced a new initiative to deliver solar power to low-income households, he listed a few cities he said were already on board. Among them was Washington, D.C., which the White House said would be launching a plan to invest up to $6 million in community solar for low-income residents.

The demand from households (and businesses) that want to generate their own electricity from renewable energy sources is rising rapidly. Correspondingly, the costs of acquiring solar equipment to meet that demand have dropped considerably. But solar costs are still out of reach for low-wage earners, and it’s even more difficult to access solar if you rent or live in public housing. To address that problem, community solar programs have been established across the country that allow non-homeowners to subscribe to a solar array system. The White House’s announcement earlier this month dealt mostly with bolstering and expanding the community solar network.

And while Obama said that D.C. was involved in the new initiative, it will be a while before it launches there—for a number of reasons. One is that the District’s Department of the Environment, the agency that would handle that effort, is still at the drawing board in determining what this initiative will even look like. It will not formally launch the community solar initiative until the new fiscal year, which starts October 1. But even that start-time could get hampered: There’s a great deal of conflict about how low-income D.C. residents will really benefit from the community solar program.

D.C. Department of Environment Director Tommy Wells tells CityLab that he confirmed that there was $6 million available for community solar from the District’s Renewable Energy Development Fund, which is devoted solely to solar. And he says the department plans to use this money mostly for renters who need solar—as opposed to D.C.’s existing solar program, which mostly benefits homeowners.

Under D.C.’s Solar Advantage Plus program, a household of four that makes under $60,245 can have solar panels installed on its roof for free by one of six District-authorized contractors. That program is close to meeting its goal of installing solar panels on 130 roofs by September 30.


But a separate stream of solar panel systems that would benefit non-homeowners of low income— the one the White House teased—hasn’t been developed yet. Wells told CityLab that his department is in the process of identifying buildings around the district where they could potentially nest solar arrays, the hubs for distributing solar electricity out to apartment buildings and other non-homeowner subscribers.

But DOE is still tinkering with feasibility questions—like figuring out the best way to set up a subscriber system for renters, whether to leverage the $6 million with private funding, and whether community solar should include small disadvantaged businesses, like local barbershops. Wells says he hopes to have a plan for how to distribute the funds in about two months, though the department doesn’t expect to launch the initiative until fall at the earliest. Asked whether the White House’s announcement was perhaps premature, DC DOE public information officer Julia Christian says:

DDOE is a partner in the White House’s community solar initiative, which set a new goal to install 300 MW of renewable energy on affordable housing by 2020, and expanded the goal to include community and shared solar installations. Their announcement was made on behalf of all partners, and included forward-looking commitments by various jurisdictions to make investments that would advance community solar, and scale up solar in low and moderate income communities. Those active in the District’s solar space are aware of our intent, and our initiative has been mentioned publicly a few times. DDOE has announced its goals, and from our perspective, it’s a statement of intent regarding what many partners are planning to do in this space in the coming year. They represent only initial commitments, with many of the partners’ details to be addressed in the weeks ahead.

One of the primary partners Wells says the District is consulting with on this is DC Solar United Neighborhoods (DC SUN), a resident-led advocacy group. It’s been a huge proponent of the Community Renewables Energy Act, which the D.C. Council passed in 2013 to pave the way for renters to gain access to solar. But DC SUN advocates say the local public-service commission erred when it finalized rules for the legislation in April by giving community solar subscribers less credit toward their electric bills than the normal going rate. Under those rules, renters who buy in to a community solar system will receive roughly 8 cents per kilowatt hour of solar generation as opposed to the 14 cents credit that homeowners currently get. Wrote Ben Delman on the DC SUN blog:

Unfortunately, the rules the PSC set for the law create a second class of solar citizens, because they prevent community solar subscribers from receiving the full value of their solar production. The PSC has wrongly made community solar worth about half as much as conventionally-owned solar by ruling that distribution charges are not included when crediting community solar subscribers. This will make it extremely difficult for anyone who rents, lives in multi-unit buildings, or has an unsuitable roof to enjoy the benefits of solar energy. That’s more than 80% of D.C. residents.

The council was supposed to vote on legislation that would fix this credit imbalance last week. But that vote was thwarted after the public-service commission expressed concerns that giving community solar subscribers the full credit would decrease tax revenue. The council is next expected to take it up in September, which solar advocates fear will stall community solar projects from coming online.

Local utility company Pepco will probably be of little help here, given that it was recently listed as the worst in the nation for connecting solar power. Meanwhile, most of the solar panels currently on D.C.’s rooftops are concentrated in the city’s Northwest neighborhoods, where incomes are higher. Below is a 2012 map from the solar financing and investment firm Sol Systems, showing where solar arrays were installed across the District.

(Sol Systems)

Wells tells CityLab that he’s focusing on the District’s poorer Southeast neighborhoods (which you can see are bereft of sun symbols) for the community solar program when it launches. Hopefully, families there won’t have to wait much longer.  

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