A solar installer lays a panel on a rooftop. Credit: Kate Costa / U.S. Department of Energy

PosiGen markets the program to lower-income households that spend a greater share of income on utility bills.

Clive Griffiths, 61, had given up on the prospect of installing solar on his 1950s-era home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. While he wanted to reduce his electric bill, which was often $300 to $400 a month with several adult children living in the house, a solar company representative told him his roof was too old.

But after a friend persuaded him to let another company take a look, Griffiths learned his roof could, in fact, support solar panels. Moreover, the company would throw in a host of energy efficiency improvements, like wrapping pipes and air sealing, as part of the 20-year lease agreement.

Griffiths signed on for $75 a month. Since then, “it’s been very beneficial,” he said. “I’ve gotten a zero-dollar utility bill several times.”

PosiGen markets its Solar for All program in low- to moderate-income households throughout Connecticut. Through a partnership with the Connecticut Green Bank, the Louisiana-based company is able to include energy efficiency improvements with all of its solar installations. That’s critical to maximize cost savings for households that are often spending 15% to 20% of their income on utility bills.

If talk of air sealing and chimney balloons doesn’t exactly dazzle potential customers at the outset, such improvements ultimately make an impression once the savings start to show up, said Beth Galante, PosiGen’s vice president of business development and government relations.

“Energy efficiency isn’t sexy — people want solar. So we get people in the door with the solar opportunity, then we kind of get them to take their energy efficiency medicine,” Galante said. “We know once they’ve got it they will be so much happier and see greater savings. It pays off wonderfully in customer satisfaction and referrals.”

A recent report from the CT Green Bank, a quasi-public lending agency, suggests the strategy is working. As of the end of 2018, about 20% of the 30,783 solar installations performed since 2012 under the agency’s Residential Solar Investment Program were in households with incomes below 80% of the area median income. That’s up from 11% in 2014, the year before the agency contracted with PosiGen specifically to target underserved markets.

In each of the past three years, as PosiGen has ramped up, the percentage of installations in lower-income households has ranged between 27% and 29%.

The focus on lower-income households has also resulted in higher rates of solar adoption within communities of color, the report said.

Inequities in solar adoption are a problem across the country. A recent study by researchers at Tufts University found that black-majority census tracts have installed 69% less rooftop solar than tracts where no single race or ethnicity makes up the majority, and Hispanic-majority tracts have installed 30 percent less. White-majority tracts have installed 21 percent more than no-majority tracts.

In Connecticut, no companies were serving lower-income households, said Galante. “They weren’t even being marketed to.”

PosiGen’s program is designed to make solar leasing more accessible to financially stretched homeowners — it does not have minimum credit score requirements and there is no upfront payment. PosiGen also gives customers a first-year savings guarantee. After one year, if a customer isn’t reaping the promised savings, PosiGen will either make additional efficiency upgrades or refund the difference.  

Galante said the company uses a data tool developed by the Department of Energy to pinpoint communities with the greatest energy burdens. Marketing to lower-income households and those with marginal credit hasn’t proven financially risky — PosiGen’s Connecticut default rate on 2,253 solar systems is just 0.01%, she said.

The company’s focus on energy efficiency helps set it apart from competing solar firms, said Emily Basham, a senior associate at the CT Green Bank.

“They’re very active in promoting the energy efficiency aspect, letting people know they’re losing the value of the solar savings if their home isn’t energy efficient,” Basham said.

The CT Green Bank requires all of its solar contractors to perform utility home energy audits, which covers foundational fixes like LED bulbs and weatherstripping. The PosiGen upgrades “fill the gap between what might be left behind by the utility audit,” and make improvements homeowners might have a hard time affording on their own, like insulating attic hatches or installing programmable thermostats, Basham said.

Up until the last few months, PosiGen’s efficiency upgrades were an option customers could choose for an additional $10 month. About two-thirds of customers opted for the improvements. But Galante said PosiGen has switched to including the improvements with every solar lease.

Also operating in Louisiana and New Jersey, PosiGen is looking to eventually expand its mission to offer low- to moderate-income customers batteries for storing power, higher efficiency upgrades, and financing for high-efficiency appliances and furnaces, Galante said.

Lisa is a longtime journalist and native New Englander based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." Lisa covers New England.