Here’s a smart solar installation program for affordable housing you should copy

Solar Uptown Now

We’ve been posting a lot of news focused on low-income solar programs lately, not just because we think this is an important area for the solar industry to focus its attention but because there’s actually been a lot of attention. There’s this initiative in New York State and this one happening in Washington, D.C., and of course this one in California. But this Solar Uptown Now (S.U.N.) program might be our favorite yet.

S.U.N. is demonstrating how low- and middle-income communities and communities of color can successfully make a transition to clean, affordable energy while also creating good, green jobs for local residents. This community-initiated program is in the process of installing 270 kW-DC of rooftop solar capacity on nine Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) affordable housing cooperatives in Harlem and Washington Heights, with two additional installations on market-rate buildings that will bring the total capacity to 415 kW-DC.

What we like: Smart use of savings

The S.U.N. installations will produce power for building common areas (hallways, elevators, and laundry/common rooms), reducing operating expenses for the co-ops. The 900 residents of the nine HDFCs will receive an estimated combined savings of $59,000 during the first year after installation and more than $1.7 MM in savings over the solar installations’ 25-year life. These savings will enable the participating buildings to reallocate funds for building maintenance and reserves, providing the co-ops with financial security and helping them maintain long-term affordability for residents of the HDFCs.

Solar wealth gap: New reports show size of low-income solar market, solutions to boost installs

“Our joint partnership through SUN has provided education, free technical assistance, and financing options for HDFC co-ops, empowering residents to make informed decisions about if and how to use renewable energy for themselves,” said Sasha Hill, Urban Homesteading Assistance Board Project Associate. “When residents get power to make decisions, you can expect outcomes like this: a focus on continued affordability and sustainability for the future.”

To date, four S.U.N. installations have been completed, three of which are HDFC co-ops in Harlem. The other buildings are in various stages of the permitting and construction process.

Affordable housing focus

S.U.N. distinguishes itself from other solar programs by targeting affordable housing. Solarize campaigns organize homeowners into purchasing groups to negotiate discounted transparent pricing from a solar company and install solar at the same time. Since 2009 there have been dozens of successful Solarize campaigns across the country, most typically in suburban areas with single-family homes.

S.U.N. is the first successful solar purchasing group specifically for multi-family affordable housing, where the barriers to solar adoption are greatest and the cost savings are most needed.  WE ACT for Environmental Justice and its partners are focusing on HDFC cooperatives because they are a unique form of affordable housing in New York City that provides homeownership opportunities to low- and moderate-income families, and there is a high density of HDFCs in Northern Manhattan.

“The S.U.N. campaign is the first successful implementation of the Solarize model on multi-family buildings in a high-density urban area. Replicating this innovative model in similar neighborhoods is crucial to expanding access to solar energy to urban communities, particularly low- and moderate-income communities of color who face disproportionately higher energy cost burden and are more likely to be exposed to environmental issues. Solar energy is a solution that not only provides energy savings, but also addresses environmental and equity issues in urban communities,” said Juan Parra, Program Manager at Solar One.

“The reason we decided to pursue HDFCs is because these low-income co-ops are predominantly owned by people of color, who are often overlooked by mainstream efforts to address climate change even though they shoulder a disproportionate burden of global warming,” added Cecil Corbin-Mark, Deputy Director and Director of Policy Initiatives at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “The program was born out of Northern Manhattan residents’ desire to combat climate change, and the fact that the costs savings bolster the long-term affordability of these HDFCs – which also helps stave off displacement and gentrification in these communities – makes it even more attractive for all involved.”

Promotion of green jobs

As we opined last week, solar should be seen as a form of economic resilience. The S.U.N. program distinguishes itself in this way by incorporating a pathway to green jobs for members of the local community.

WE ACT has been providing free worker training since 2012, funded by the New York State Department of Labor, and started offering free solar installation training in 2018 in partnership with Solar One as part of the S.U.N. program. The request for job training and the requirement that the S.U.N. installer, 770 Electric Corp./Grid City Energy, hire some of these local trainees was mandated by the community and WE ACT members.

To date, the program has provided solar installation training to more than 100 unemployed and underemployed Northern Manhattan residents, with five of them landing solar jobs – including two who are working with 770 Electric Corp./Grid City Energy on the S.U.N. installations.

— Solar Builder magazine


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