California Just Made It Easier for Disadvantaged Communities to Benefit from Solar

Last month, California expanded access to solar in underserved communities. In June, the CPUC approved three new low-income solar programs for investor-owned utility customers living in disadvantaged communities (DACs): DAC-SASH, DAC-Green Tariff, and Community Solar Green Tariff. For the first time in the Golden State, going solar will become an available and affordable option for tens of thousands of low-income Californians who live in economically and environmentally at-risk communities, but not necessarily in designated affordable housing. The new programs will offer solar incentives for homeowners whose roofs are suitable for solar, as well as subscriptions to community solar projects for renters and others that lack roof space or the financial flexibility to install solar.  

To be sure, Vote Solar and our clean energy allies did not get everything we advocated for in this CPUC rulemaking. The Commission could have gone further to make solar more affordable and accessible for more disadvantaged Californians. For example, by approving a virtual net metering program that allows full retail bill credits and true community ownership options for community solar, California could emulate the success of other states like Hawaii, Colorado, and Massachusetts.

Still, these new offerings represent welcome and meaningful progress for low-income solar access in the Golden State, and we want Californians to know about them.

Here are the key elements of each new program:

Disadvantaged Communities – Single-family Solar Homes Program (DAC-SASH)

(this a new program similar in structure to SASH. SASH will continue through 2021)

  • The program is allocated $10 million per year for twelve years, from 2019-2030. (By contrast, SASH is currently funded at $7-9 million per year until just 2021)

  • To be eligible, customers must own a single-family home in a top 25% disadvantaged community statewide, as defined by CalEPA’s CalEnviroScreen mapping tool, which assesses what census tracts are most disadvantaged using pollution and socioeconomic data.

  • Customers do not need to live in designated affordable housing to qualify. They must meet the income requirements of CARE or FERA (meaning they are at or below 250% of the federal poverty guideline) and must undergo an income verification process.

  • A $3/watt non-declining incentive is made available to pay down the cost of rooftop solar systems of 1kW – 5 kW in size. The program administrator (who will be selected via competitive process) is encouraged to seek other funding sources to cover as much as possible of the rest of the systems’ cost. Program funding could support approximately 1000 installed systems per year or 12,000 systems over the twelve-year life of the program.

Disadvantaged Communities – Green Tariff Program (DAC- Green Tariff)

  • To be eligible, customers must qualify as low-income under the CARE or FERA programs, and they must live in a top 25% disadvantaged community statewide, as defined by CalEPA’s CalEnviroScreen mapping tool.

  • The IOU will conduct a competitive solicitation at least twice a year and sign a contract with the solar developer, and there will be no direct relationship between the customer and the developer. Customers will simply sign up for the program via their utility, who should make it simple to do so.

  • Eligible customers who sign up will get a 20% reduction in their power bill, in addition to any low-income subsidy they already receive

  • The program is initially capped at 158 MW for all three utilities combined (70 for PG&E, 70 for SCE, and 18 for SDG&E), with a potential CPUC-approved expansion in the future. Assuming customers subscribe to 3 kW of solar capacity on average, the program could serve approximately 50,000 customers prior to reaching the initial cap.

  • Solar projects must be built in a top 25% disadvantaged community statewide as defined by CalEPA’s CalEnviroScreen mapping tool and may be between 500 kW and 20 MW in size.

Community Solar Green Tariff Program

  • Has a similar structure and the same 20% subscriber bill discount as the DAC- Green Tariff program, but seeks specifically to build solar projects that will serve nearby disadvantaged communities. As a proximity requirement, the DAC where the project is located must be within 5 miles of the DAC(s) where the customers are located, so that customers can feel more of a connection with the project. Customers who live in a San Joaquin pilot program community as identified in another CPUC proceeding would also be eligible, as long as the community is within 5 miles of the project.

  • One or more local governments, community choice aggregators or non-profit community-based organizations, also within the same proximity as above, is required to sponsor the project. The sponsor(s) will do community outreach, suggest hosting sites and recruit subscribers. If the sponsor recruits enough low-income customers to subscribe 50% or more of the project’s capacity, then the sponsor will receive a 20% discount on up to 25% of the project’s energy output.  

  • Other than the sponsor(s), only residential customers are eligible. Low-income customers (i.e. eligible for CARE or FERA) receive priority for signup, but other residential customers within the eligible proximity are also allowed once low-income customers have subscribed to at least 50% of the project’s capacity.

  • Solar projects must be built in a top 25% disadvantaged community statewide as defined by CalEPA’s CalEnviroScreen mapping tool, and may be up to 5 MW in size depending on the utility’s program cap, with no lower size limit

  • The IOU will sign a contract with the developer for all of the project’s output via twice-yearly competitive solicitations as with DAC- Green Tariff, and may if they wish be involved in the organizing of Community Solar Green Tariff projects as well.

  • Local hiring and job training requirements will apply to ensure job opportunities for local low-income communities.

  • The program is initially capped at 41 MW for all three utilities combined (18 for PG&E, 18 for SCE,  and 5 for SDG&E), with a potential CPUC-approved expansion in the future. Assuming customers subscribe to 3 kW of solar capacity on average, this would serve approximately 13,000 customers prior to reaching the initial cap.

The three new programs will be paid for by all IOU and CCA ratepayers, first through available IOU GHG allowance proceeds, and once those are exhausted through public purpose program charges. Community choice aggregators are allowed to develop similar programs, and upon CPUC approval can receive funding for subscriber subsidies via the same funding pots.

The next step is for the three utilities to file specific tariffs for Commission approval in August. As always in public policy, the details matter. We urge the Commission to ensure the utilities get those details right and then move quickly to roll these new offerings out. There is no time to waste — for underserved communities’ pocketbooks, for public health and for the planet.

 

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Susannah directs Vote Solar’s distributed solar advocacy efforts in California and other West Coast states. She has worked in California clean energy policy for over 15 years, holding prior positions as Senior Regulatory Analyst at the California Public Utilities Commission and Advisor to a Commissioner at the California Energy Commission. Susannah was one of the key architects of the first California Renewables Portfolio Standard enacted in 2002, which has since been expanded to a 50% renewables requirement by 2030. In 2015, she spearheaded a broad grassroots effort in support of preserving full credit for rooftop solar generation in California, resulting in letters from over 100 organizations and local elected leaders, and over 150,000 petitions sent from the public to the CPUC, by far the most public input the agency has ever received on any one issue. Susannah holds a Masters in Public Policy from UC Berkeley. In her free time, she loves singing harmonies and hiking in the green hills of the East Bay.

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