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A Massachusetts renewable energy company hopes to help low-income consumers nationwide access the financial benefits of clean energy with a new platform that allows homeowners to share excess solar credits.
The Solar Equity Platform, created by Boston-based Resonant Energy, encourages homeowners with sufficient space to install systems larger than their households need. Homeowners will receive state incentives for the power generated, while the credits generated by the additional energy production are passed on at no cost to low-income residents, who can use them to offset their electricity bills.
“We take people who have the structural advantage of having large homes and capitalize on that asset,” said Ben Underwood, co-founder and co-CEO of Resonant Energy. “It’s taking some of that value and sending it to people in low-income neighborhoods.”
Currently, the platform is operating only in Massachusetts. However, Resonant hopes to expand the concept into other states as well. And it isn’t just its creators who see the promise in the idea: The platform made it to the final round of the U.S. Department of Energy’s American Made Solar competition.
Even as solar power proliferates across the country — solar installations made up close to half of the new electric generation capacity added nationwide in 2021, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association — low-income households are often left out of this progress. The upfront costs of installing a system are often too high for a family struggling to pay the bills. Low-income consumers are also more likely to live in rental units or in houses with older roofs or outdated electrical systems that can’t support solar panels.
In an attempt to narrow this gap, Massachusetts’ solar incentive plan, the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target program (SMART), offers additional money for systems on the homes of low-income families as well as those that allocate part or all of the clean energy produced to low-income households, allowing these residents to receive the benefit of stable, generally lower prices on their electricity.
So far, though, this incentive has gained limited traction: Just 10% of the capacity the program has received applications for has claimed some form of these higher incentives.
The Solar Equity Platform is designed to boost these numbers by simplifying the process of building and sharing excess capacity.
“Power production is such a huge part of the economy that as we move toward a more distributed system it would be a real loss not to capture part of that for people who have not benefited from power production before,” Underwood said.
Spark of an idea
The idea for the platform first came to Underwood nearly two years ago, when he was thinking about buying a house. As he thought about the disparities in access to housing, he wondered why there wasn’t a system that would allow him to pay extra on his mortgage and have that money used to pay down the mortgages of people in need. He quickly realized that this idea could actually apply in a very real way to his business of solar power.
Founded in 2016, Resonant is a solar developer focused on building systems that benefit disadvantaged communities. To date, the company, a registered B Corporation, has completed more than 160 projects, most serving low-income households, churches, and nonprofits. The idea of finding ways to share solar power was a natural fit for the company’s mission.
When a home with a solar array generates more power than it consumes, the homeowner receives credit on their bill for the extra power that was shared back on the grid. Often, however, homeowners accumulate these credits and don’t need to use them, as their solar systems provide enough power that they rarely if ever need to draw from the grid.
Underwood conceived of a platform that would allow the sharing of these solar credits, which would otherwise simply sit unused, without the need to work through a tangle of paperwork and regulations. Resonant worked with Boston-based software developer MySunBuddy to make this vision a reality.
Solar installers will recruit homeowners into the program when they encounter new customers with sufficient roof space for an oversized system or existing solar-equipped homes that regularly generate more energy than they need.
“The idea would really be to empower the supply-side installers to bring their customers onto the platform without direct involvement from us,” Underwood said.
Ideally, the system will offer financial benefits to all participants. Resonant will take a small fee whenever an installer signs a new system up for the program, creating a low-effort revenue stream. Installers will earn more by installing larger systems. System owners will receive enough money from the state incentives to make a return on their investment in a larger system.
Participating low-income households will see their electricity bills drop significantly as well, Resonant calculates. The plan is to match one contributing household to one receiving household. Based on the typical size of residential installations, low-income recipients are likely to see savings of $300 to $500 per year.
To distribute the donated credits, Resonant intends to work with grassroots community groups who could use the availability of clean power credits to sweeten — and strengthen — other energy-saving offers. They might, for example, provide the credits to homeowners that are interested in doing weatherization work, which is often provided at no cost by state efficiency programs.
“People are taking a substantial action by going through weatherization,” Underwood said. “This could make it more worth their while to do that.”
Resonant is talking to area nonprofits about participation, but clean energy nonprofit the Green Energy Consumers Alliance is already on board. The organization already has a fund to help low-income families pay their heating bills in the winter; Executive Director Larry Chretien expects the Solar Equity Platform to function as a clean energy complement to the existing program.
“Our organization thinks it’s important to deliver clean energy benefits to everybody,” Chretien said. “And we want to explore different ways of doing that.”
Scale of impact
While the Solar Equity Platform does not change some of the underlying structural challenges that make solar power less accessible to low-income households, it does attempt to squeeze the most benefit — and equity — out of the system as it exists today, supporters said.
“We’re trying to leverage the fact that there are people who’ve got extra solar capacity,” Chretien said. “A good roof is a terrible thing to waste.”
For Homeowners Rehab Inc., a nonprofit affordable housing developer based in Cambridge, participating in the Solar Equity Platform will help it advance its commitment to put solar on as many of its 70 properties as possible, said senior project manager Will Monson.
“To the extent the Solar Equity Platform boosts the return, that allows us to stretch the finite amount of funds we have available to more projects,” Monson said.
The availability of the platform might also help solar installers by giving homeowners an extra moral and financial motivation for committing to a larger system, said Casey Bolduc, director of marketing and technology for ACE Solar.
“Being able to offer that as an additional financial angle for our clients, and a sense of contributing to the greater good — I do see it as a potential benefit that will help someone who is interested in it get over the hump,” Bolduc said.
The platform has been up and running in Massachusetts for about two months. One customer has signed on to share their credits and others are in the pipeline.
In Massachusetts alone, if just 10% of new solar installations joined the platform, some 1,100 low-income households could see total savings of about $500,000 per year, he estimated.
And Underwood is already looking into possibilities for expanding the model into other states where solar incentives and net metering would make the economics work. Resonant has started investigating community groups and other potential partners in surrounding New England states in preparation for this intended expansion.
In the meantime, they will be working to expand and strengthen participation in Massachusetts, so other potential participants in other states will be able to see clearly the benefits of the platform.
“We hope we could make a case for why this is good for other states, for why it makes economic sense,” Underwood said.