The District of Columbia has enjoyed 15 years of strong economic growth. But prosperity is spread unevenly across the nation’s capital. Calling Washington “an increasingly two-class town,” the New York Times Magazine reported in 2013 that about one-third of the city’s households earned less than $60,000 a year, while nearly half made more than $100,000 a year. At the same time, high housing and energy costs make Washington, DC one of the nation’s most expensive places to live.

The District has adopted a strong green agenda, including a renewable portfolio standard with an overall goal of 20 percent renewable electricity and a 2.5 percent carve-out for solar power by 2023. The city is densely developed, so distributed solar will be an important component of this target. But when the District of Columbia Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU)—an entity created by D.C. Council legislation in 2008 to promote energy efficiency, clean energy, and economic development through financial incentives, technical assistance, and information-sharing — surveyed existing solar installations in the city, it found that almost no residents in low-income wards had access to solar power. Because these households spent nearly twice as large a fraction of their total incomes on energy than the national average, solar power could save them significant amounts of money.

Small-Scale Solar

In 2012, the DCSEU launched a Small-Scale Solar Initiative with a goal of installing solar photovoltaic arrays on 20 homes belonging to low-income owners in Wards 7 and 8, where fewer than one dozen homes had solar power. The DCSEU identified qualified participants and educated them about solar power, working with community leaders and nonprofits. The systems were installed at no cost to homeowners. Financing came through a combination of federal investment tax credits, renewable energy credits (owned by contractors who installed the systems), and additional funding provided by DCSEU. More than 80 systems were installed in 2012.

Once the program gained residents’ confidence, demand increased. To date the DCSEU has installed solar PV systems on more than 100 homes in Wards 5, 7 and 8. The systems provide residents with zero-cost electricity and save each household about $500 yearly. The DCSEU also is working with the National Housing Trust to install solar PV and hot water systems on a number of multifamily affordable buildings in the District, with plans to add solar to more than 20 buildings in the next several years.

Expanding Opportunity

In early 2015, the DCSEU and the Department of Energy & Environment (DoEE), which administers the DCSEU’s contract, launched a new program called Solar Advantage Plus. It offers rebates to income-qualified residents to install PV systems in single-family homes. Modeled on the DCSEU’s 2012 efforts as well as California’s Single-Family Solar Affordable Homes (SASH) program, Solar Advantage provides rebates of $2.50 per watt AC with a maximum of $10,000 per system and is designed to cover the full cost of installation. Systems must be installed and operational by September 30, 2015.

Now DoEE and other agencies are developing plans to coordinate a number of programs targeted toward low-income households, including support for solarization, to meet multiple policy goals. “We want to expand solar as broadly as possible to reap all of the benefits,” says DoEE policy analyst Emil King. Washington, DC mayor Muriel Bowser, elected in November 2014, has proposed a series of initiatives aimed at creating “Pathways to the Middle Class,” and DoEE views solar power as one way to advance that agenda by reducing the amount of money that residents spend on energy. “The focus will be on meeting the needs of households that have low incomes and high energy burdens,” King says.

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This blog post was written by Jenny Weeks and Warren Leon, and was originally published in the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA)’s 2015 report “Clean Energy Champions: The Importance of State Policies and Programs.” This report provides the first-ever comprehensive look at the ways states are advancing clean energy and suggests how to further encourage clean energy growth.

This blog post was also published in Renewable Energy World.