Solar+storage for critical services providers: Barriers and opportunities

Solar array of Maycroft Apartments. Photo Credit: New Partners Community Solar
Solar array of Maycroft Apartments. Photo Credit: New Partners Community Solar

By Marriele Mango and Abbe Ramanan, Clean Energy Group

Solar+storage is increasingly being explored by low-income service providers, such as affordable housing developers, community institutions, and municipal facilities, to improve resilience in the event of an outage and reduce energy costs. Despite an increase in the occurrence and duration of power outages due to extreme weather and climate change, penetration of solar+storage in these markets still remains low.

To gain more insight into what barriers are preventing greater implementation of solar+storage in under-served communities, Clean Energy Group (CEG) conducted a survey of 60 municipalities, community organizations, affordable housing developers, and technical service providers working in low-income communities. CEG overviews these survey results and provides recommendations to overcome barriers to solar+storage development in the recent report, Overcoming Barriers to Solar+Storage in Critical Facilities Serving Low-Income Communities: A Survey of Service Providers. CEG released a previous report, Overcoming Barriers to Solar and Storage in Affordable Housing, that explores the results of this survey that pertained specifically to affordable housing developers.

On-the-Ground Realities of Solar+Storage Development

CEG spoke with organizations from affordable housing, emergency services, and community services to dig deeper into their experience developing solar+storage. The following are key takeaways from those conversations.

Affordable Housing

Energy Resilience vs Energy Saving: Many affordable housing developers indicated in their survey responses that energy bill savings are just as, if not more, of a motivation for pursuing solar+storage as energy resilience.  Balancing these two motivations can be difficult for affordable housing developers, who must justify the economic case for solar+storage while weighing the needs of a larger portfolio of properties. For Herb Stevens, CEO of New Partners Community Solar, it was essential for the Maycroft Resiliency Center solar+storage project to benefit affordable housing residents both through resilience and reduced utility costs:

“This project makes a connection for the residents of the Maycroft apartments between the solar on the roof, the batteries in the basement, and the solar network run by New Partners on other rooftops. Only because of this connection can we reduce the energy burden for 66 households at the Maycroft. Plus, the resilience center allows them to stay safe, help each other, and stay connected to the vital services they need during an electric outage.”

Regulatory Support: For affordable housing developers already operating on thin margins, a supportive regulatory environment can make or break a solar+storage project. This is made even more difficult when trying to ensure direct economic benefit to affordable housing residents.

Herb emphasized that a strong regulatory environment was essential to the success of their project. In Washington, D.C., developers benefit from a robust community solar law that allows customers to subscribe to a solar array regardless of if they own the property on which the solar array is installed. This model allowed for the Maycroft project to financially benefit multiple low-income customers, regardless of geography, while also providing resilience through battery storage to residents of a single affordable housing community. Unfortunately, only 20 states allow for community solar models similar to D.C.’s.

Stevens summarized their perspective on community solar paired with battery storage:

“The solar panels can help with resiliency. The batteries can help with resiliency. But only if the solar panels and the batteries are connected to the residents who need them.” 

Critical and Community Service Providers

Critical and community services providers indicated energy resilience as a leading motivation for project development. Both also emphasized battery storage awareness and funding as leading barriers to development.

Energy Resilience for Emergency Preparedness and Response: Emergency service providers, such as first responders, highlighted the growing use of solar+storage as an emergency response tool to use in the event of an outage.

Footprint Project, a nonprofit organization that helps emergency responders deploy clean technologies, highlighted that their mobile battery storage trailer model has been hugely successful post-disaster. Will Heegaard, Operations Director of Footprint Project, has seen how solar+storage can improve disaster response firsthand:

“Our initial motivation stemmed from working in the field on disaster response and recovery missions, and experiencing first-hand the tactical challenges of running relief efforts while relying exclusively on fossil-fuel generators for electricity. We learned that even a small solar generator can be game-changing for emergency service workers.”

Will ranked project cost and financing as the biggest barrier the project faced, followed by staff capacity (to coordinate and complete the build), and maintenance planning. Furthermore, there are very few resources available to guide community mobile solar projects, which can hamper and/or delay development due to the need for capacity building upfront.

Internal Organizational Capacity and Community Awareness Building: Community service providers led with feedback related to capacity building, both internally and for the broader community. Many relied on or required programs that supported solar+storage predevelopment and awareness building.

Nicole Lim, Executive Director of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center (CIMCC), said solar+storage for their facility was an integral component of their broader Resilient Native Generations initiative:

“We saw firsthand how climate change and the lack of application of indigenous stewardship practices is impacting our ancestral territory and tribal families… Our project seeks to improve our green infrastructure, empower our tribal community with educational resources and mobilize our facility to conduct response and recovery specific to Native American families during times of need.”

Queen Shabazz, Founder/Director of United Parents Against Lead (UPAL) in Virginia, highlighted the progress they’ve made in their project, a community resilience hub that will serve the Delectable Heights community by converting an historic building into a community Resiliency Hub. However, barriers remain:

“Existing barriers are finding resources for batteries. We have secured funding for the solar PV panels and installation…and are actively pursuing either the donation of batteries or funding to purchase batteries.

Nicole stated that solar+storage development has been a learning process. Part of their response and recovery efforts include serving as a county designated cooling and operations center for emergency shelter during evacuations and power outages, which will be supported in part by solar and battery storage. She highlighted capacity building and predevelopment support from partners, such as CEG and Partnership for Resilient Communities, as necessary. CIMCC also utilized these partnerships to engage the broader community through solar+storage education events, like webinars.

For UPAL, solar+storage for their facility will improve resilience as well as dramatically reduce utility costs – up to $5,000 per year. They also are utilizing the solar+storage process to inform other projects in the community and hope to serve as a resilience model that other community organizations can learn from.

Overcoming Barriers

The experiences shared by CIMCC, UPAL, Footprint Project, and New Partners Community Solar provide valuable insight into the solar+storage process for low-income service providers. However, their experiences are not unique. The vast majority of responses to the CEG survey reflected similar obstacles and highlighted the same bottom-line: low-income communities require solar+storage resources but face significant barriers in accessing resilient power technologies.

Overcoming Barriers to Solar+Storage in Critical Facilities Serving Low-Income Communities: A Survey of Service Providers not only overviews barriers to solar+storage development, but also provides realistic recommendations for how low-income service providers can be better supported in developing solar+storage resources, including:

1) Increase Awareness of Battery Storage: Freely available educational resources can help to address the resilient power learning curve faced by organizations when considering backup power options.

2) Create Opportunities for Capacity Building: Programs that support internal capacity building can uplift community organizations struggling to develop resilient power resources due to limited staff time and resources.

3) Provide Technical Assistance Support: Upfront technical assistance from a trusted third-party can provide a valuable first step in the resilient power process by framing the economic and resilience potential of a specific solar+storage project.

4) Develop Innovative Incentive and Finance Options: Programs that reduce upfront costs and monetize grid services can improve system economics. Solar+storage finance options tailored to meet the needs of service providers can spur market development in under-resourced communities.

5) Establish a Monetary Value for Resilience: Assigning a monetary value to resilience can improve the economic calculus for organizations weighing the economic benefits of solar+storage.

Low-income service providers require state, utility, and NGO support to build solar+storage resources in the communities that need them the most. Without it, it will be all but impossible to effectively scale resilient power development in under-resourced communities across the country, leaving the most high-risk residents vulnerable to the consequences of power outages.

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