US Energy Dept. Aims For Affordable Solar Power

Follow. The. Money. For all the talk about saving coal jobs over the past four years or so, the US Department of Energy has been pushing dollar after dollar onto the renewable energy plate. In the latest twist, the Energy Department is ramping up its efforts to bring affordable solar power to the nation’s vast population of low- and middle-income households, with a focus on new financial instruments.

Affordable Solar Power, Sooner Rather Than Later

The cost of solar power has been dropping like a rock, but rooftop solar is still out of reach for many US households. Money is a big part of a problem, but it’s not the only one. Shading, lack of roof space, tenant-landlord relations, and other nuts-and-bolts factors also tamp down on solar access.

Utility-based solar access is increasing for many electricity ratepayers, but the shift out of large scale fossil power is a long, slow process.

One trend that could help speed things along is community choice aggregation, which is now available in a handful of states. Among them is New York State, which has just launched a new solar program that could be a game-changer.

However, the aggregation model has been slow to catch on nationwide. It requires state-based legislation, and we’ll have to wait for the outcome of the November 3 elections to see if any other state legislatures start moving in that direction.

In the meantime, the Energy Department appears to have settled on community solar programs as the quickest way to ensure that affordable solar power is within the reach of every US household.

How long will that take? Check out DOE’s National Community Solar Partnership, which is on a mission to bring affordable solar power to every household in the US by 2025.

Persistent Poverty & The Rural Electric Cooperative Angle

For an assist, the Energy Department has turned to the nation’s sprawling network of rural electric cooperatives. That’s partly because the unique regulatory status of rural co-ops provides them with more wiggle room to adopt new financial strategies and new energy technologies that could help speed solar adoption.

Recent examples include a community energy storage project in Minnesota and a renewable energy mashup with the leading distributed energy resources firm AutoGrid though NRECA’s affiliation with the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative.

Rural co-ops also serve much of the nation’s low- and middle-income households, which lends a high-impact aspect to their activity in the affordability area.

According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, its 900 member co-ops serve 92% of US counties that come under the “persistent poverty” category, meaning that the population falling under the poverty level has reached the critical-mass level of 20%.

At that rate of poverty, these counties “experience systemic problems that are more acute than in lower-poverty areas,” according to a 2019 Congressional Research Service Report.

“Therefore, policy interventions at the community level (such as applying the 10-20-30 provision to other programs besides those cited in ARRA), and not only at the individual or family level, could continue to be of interest to Congress,” the report concluded.

The Community Solar Solution

Got all that? Good! That explains why the Energy Department has been working so closely with NRECA on solar affordability, and that brings us to the latest development.

Earlier this month, NRECA let word slip that it has received $1 million from the Energy Department to support the organization’s ACCESS (for Achieving Cooperative Community Equitable Solar Sources) program.

The ACCESS program “will leverage the experience gained through innovative cooperative initiatives to make solar energy accessible to LMI consumers,” as described by NRECA VP of Business Strategies Jim Spiers.

Specifically, NRECA has tapped six co-ops to deploy financial tools and other strategies that bring community solar projects to low- and middle-income households:

  • Anza Electric Cooperative (California): a 4-megawatt project with energy storage, for a tribal community and other low-income consumer-members.
  • Oklahoma Electric Cooperative: a 2-megawatt project to benefit the public school district in Norman, where about half of students qualify for subsidized school meals.
  • Orcas Power & Light (Washington State):  a 1.25-megawatt project with storage, with a portion set aside for low-income members.
  • Roanoke Electric Cooperative (North Carolina): a program to leverage a community solar program to support energy efficiency upgrades, possibly with some philanthropic help.

Two of the six projects are TBD, so stay tuned for word from BARC Electric Cooperative (Virginia) and Kit Carson Electric Cooperative (New Mexico).

Kit Carson stands to be especially interesting due to its hookup with the firm Guzman Energy, which has figured out a way to help electric coops disentangle themselves from burdensome fossil energy contracts.

More (Big, Huge) Friends Of Affordable Solar Power

To make things even more interesting, the $1 million round of funding builds on an award of $300,000 that the Energy Department provided to NRECA last year, in support of the organization’s CARES (Cooperatives Achieving Rural Equity in Solar) project.

CARES is a best-practices initiative aimed at figuring out ways to improve access to financial resources for communities in need. To that end, NRECA recruited the coop-affiliated National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation and CoBank to serve as financial partners.

The two partners were tasked to “develop solutions that take advantage of financial assistance programs, guarantees and opportunity zone designations (where and when applicable) to make solar energy development more affordable,” and they are both involved in the new ACCESS project.

Also working in a continuing role from CARES to ACCESS is the California-based nonprofit organization GRID Alternatives, and that’s where things get really interesting.

GRID has been working under the radar since 2001, when two engineering professionals — Erica Mackie and Tim Sears — leveraged their private sector experience to launch a solar pipeline for low-income communities. Ahead of the Green New Deal, GRID also has job creation built into its DNA.

GRID popped up on the CleanTechnica radar back in 2013 for its triple play of renewable energy, low-income access to clean power, and job creation. It has been super-busy since then, one recent highlight being the addition of an energy storage component to its ongoing partnership with the leading solar firm SunRun.

Last summer the non-profit also teamed up with Chanel — yes, that Chanel — for a $35 million solar job creation and solar access program, which is designed to reach about 30,000 low-income California residents.

For those of you keeping score at home, yet another partner in the ACCESS project is the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. That’s interesting on account of the lab’s energy storage work, in addition to its solar expertise.

The lab could also facilitate a ripple effect on low-income access to distributed wind power, of which it is a big fan.

In another interesting twist that demonstrates how quickly the renewable energy ecosystem is developing, last summer SunRun hooked up with AutoGrid for cloud-based virtual power plant services across the US, leveraging SunRun’s growing fleet of residential batteries.


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