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No Rooftop? No Sun? No Problem: The Promise of Community Solar

By Jared Lang, Sustainable Development Manager

In the first quarter of 2016, solar made up approximately 2/3 of the new electric generating capacity installed in the US. Despite the US Solar Power Industry growing at snail's pace throughout the past several decades, solar power installation is now booming and the industry is maturing. Why now? Strong federal and state incentives, combined with technological advances, have brought down the cost of solar and made it competitive with traditional fossil fuel energy.

As the solar power industry matures and installation costs come down, there has been a lot of talk about how we can include low-income communities in the solar power boom. Outside of their housing costs, low-income families  and seniors spend the largest share of their income on utilities and would benefit most from an ongoing source of free power. However, the upfront capital needed to install solar systems has remained a major hurdle.  

With this in mind, the National Housing Trust developed several financing structures for the installation of solar power on low-income residential properties. To date, NHT has completed 1 Megawatt of solar power on 22 buildings and formed partnerships with several other housing owners to do the same. At one of our communities, Channel Square, NHT worked with funding from the MacArthur and Wells Fargo Foundations to install the largest rooftop solar on a privately owned property in Washington D.C. We anticipate annual savings to exceed $60,000!  

In addition to adding solar panels to individual buildings, NHT is exploring the potential of "community solar" to reach low-income residents.  We're working with several partners in the Washington D.C. area, including Enterprise Community Partners and Nixon-Peabody, to develop one of the first community solar projects in Washington, D.C. Community Solar projects are especially impactful for renters because the mechanism allows utility customers who do not own rooftops suitable for solar to buy power from a solar system installed in a different location, perhaps even in a different neighborhood. The utility customers' share of the electricity generated by the solar is credited to their electricity bill, as if the solar system were located on their own home. Community solar will enable us to develop large-scale solar projects anywhere and provide power to our residents at low or no-cost.