Aerial view of solar field.
Credit: Kelly L / Creative Commons

Illinois is one of five states where the U.S. Department of Energy is piloting a program to expand community solar for low-income households by leveraging an existing federal low-income heating and cooling assistance program. 

Solar programs aimed at low-income customers in Illinois and elsewhere have often struggled because of bureaucratic and pragmatic barriers including verifying income qualifications and recruiting participants. 

The idea behind the new effort is that customers who have already been approved for bill assistance through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, can be smoothly integrated into community solar programs, avoiding additional income verification requirements and building on the long-standing recognition and trust that program enjoys. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is also part of the initiative. 

The DOE is enlisting community organizations that have long helped connect residents with LIHEAP, as well as solar developers and other stakeholders, to develop a “digital platform” for low-income community solar. The department is asking for feedback by Aug. 31 on how to design the platform, which would likely be a website or dashboard. 

“The idea of the tool itself is to be a bridge between those agencies that interface with LIHEAP recipients and community solar subscription managers,” said Nicole Steele, DOE senior advisor for equity and workforce access and head of the National Community Solar Partnership. “We’d be working directly with those organizations to make sure we’re creating the right materials to communicate the benefits of community solar and what it means to sign up for a subscription. How do you interact with your utility bill and subscription going forward, figuring out how to best streamline the process. We want to make sure we hear from everyone who is part of this puzzle.” 

DOE chose Illinois because of its low-income community solar program that was started by a 2016 energy law and expanded by a law passed last year. Pilot programs are also being launched in Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Washington, D.C. The program was announced in late July, in tandem with news that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law would fund $10 million for solar job creation in underserved communities. The DOE has a goal of connecting 5 million homes nationwide to community solar by 2025, which would increase the country’s current 3 GW of community solar to 20 GW. The department also wants to increase average bill savings from community solar from 10% currently to 20% by 2025. 

In Illinois specifically, DOE estimates that households could save $300 million a year through community solar. 

Groundwork in Illinois 

Illinois’ low-income community solar program — part of the larger Illinois Solar for All initiative — has already been popular and successful, said Jennifer Schmidt, Solar For All program manager for the Illinois Power Agency, which oversees the state’s renewable targets. 

While administrators have struggled to drum up interest in Solar for All’s programs for low-income household solar, the low-income community solar program has seen more applications than subscriptions available. The developers building low-income community solar get the right to sell renewable energy credits at high prices, and participants are guaranteed 50% bill savings. 

This year, the Illinois Power Agency approved six low-income community solar projects with a total capacity of 7.4 MW and allocated $21.3 million in incentives. Since the program started in 2017, 17 projects totaling almost 20 MW have received over $57 million in incentives.   

The Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies and its member groups have helped enlist subscribers, holding 29 presentations for more than 400 people across the state and sending mailings to LIHEAP and Head Start participants. 

“It is through these successful partnerships with locally rooted organizations that the [Solar for All] Program has been able to provide greater access to the clean energy economy for low-income communities,” Schmidt said.   

The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act passed last year expanded Solar for All, making more community solar incentives available. 

“We believe the pilot platform will provide an opportunity for income-eligible households to find and connect to [Solar for All] community solar projects that are looking for subscribers more easily,” Schmidt said. “Additionally, we hope this platform will reduce the community solar developers’ soft costs of finding eligible participants and provide an equitable and transparent way for [Solar for All]-approved vendors to reach income-eligible households.” 

The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act removed the burden of income verification from solar developers, tasking the nonprofit that administers Solar for All with that process. The DOE platform and approach would further streamline the process. 

“If you’re already a LIHEAP participant, there’s very little paperwork,” said Steele, adding that people registering for LIHEAP for the first time would also be informed about community solar. She noted that the community organizations that help people sign up for LIHEAP are usually “a trusted organization in the local community. We see that as a better model than asking the developers to do verification.” 

National models 

At a webinar about the pilot, officials described the low-income solar programs already underway in New York, New Jersey and New Mexico. In New Jersey, community solar is helping the state toward its goal of carbon-free electricity generation by 2050.

A pilot program has supported community solar projects with at least 51% of subscribers of low to moderate income. So far 126 projects have been built on rooftops, plus 24 projects on sites including landfills, parking lots and a gravel pit, said Veronique Oomen, renewable energy project manager at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. 

Through a new community solar program based on a law passed last year, New Mexico is hoping to bring savings to low-income households in Indigenous pueblos, rural areas and municipalities, said DOE solar innovator Mary Jane Parks. The state will reach out to participants in LIHEAP, food stamps, subsidized housing, first-time homebuyer and other existing programs. The program caps installations at 5 MW, and mandates that 30% of subscribers be low-income. 

“We’d like 12,000 of 239,000 low-income households in investor-owned utility territories to be approached and participate as well as tribal LIHEAP households,” Parks said. “We’d like the program to reflect the diversity of our state.” 

However, utility Southwestern Public Service Company has challenged New Mexico’s program in a case that has reached the state Supreme Court. 

New York has a goal of 1,600 new megawatts of community solar by 2030 for low- to moderate-income and environmental justice subscribers, including residents of multifamily housing.

DOE leaders on the webinar also advised state leaders to work to ensure that residents of public housing can access bill savings from community solar. Under the typical model where public housing residents pay a third of their income toward rent that includes utility bills, savings from solar would accrue to the housing agency rather than the individual. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has issued guidance for states including Illinois and California to help public housing residents benefit from community solar.  

Steele said the federal agencies will hold roundtables in the pilot states and otherwise collect feedback and design the program over the next approximately nine months, and the platforms will likely be launched next summer.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.