Solar for All Program Receives Federal Boost – Greater Greater Washington

Two people install solar panels on a demonstration home on the National Mall in 2009 by Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon.

The Cut Inflation Act was signed into law in August and with it the biggest climate change investment ever passed by Congress.

At a Solar United Neighbors briefing in late August, DC program manager Sukrit Mishra spoke enthusiastically about the bill about what it means for solar power in the district. “We’re still trying to unpack all the legislation,” he told attendees, “but it has a big impact on energy savings.”

For the past two decades, solar energy has been mired in a perceived haze of confusing legal frameworks and prohibitive expenses; a niche product for the wealthy that would take more time and money to understand and implement than it was worth once on your roof.

Mishra and others struggle with this. “Ten to 15 years ago, solar was a niche product. The appearance of the process[ed] complicated, it is no longer. Prices have fallen almost three times since then.

In the late 2000s, the early solar cronies in the district were busy raising awareness, lobbying the DC Council for increased subsidies, and preparing to go to war with Exelon and PEPCO over the inclusion of residential solar in their business model. Akili West was one of those sidekicks, a resident of Ward 8 and a veteran of the energy industry.

“At first it was the wild, wild west. Everyone was educating themselves and coming up with their own setups,” he says. “In the midst of all this, solar cooperatives were born. Some were stronger than others, as you can imagine, due to their financial means, education, and access to the big picture. Anya Schoolman helped bring everyone together.

Schoolman, with the help of his twelve-year-old son and his friend, founded the Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative, after rallying a group of neighbors to go solar to offset the high cost of individual retail solar installations. This is where Solar United Neighbors was born. During their briefing, Mishra bragged about the role of the district’s Office of Energy and Environment (DOEE) partner nonprofit in transitioning more than 750 people in the district. towards solar energy and the management of 361 solar cooperatives throughout the country. As Mishra explains, a solar co-op’s role in the process is to act as a liaison and to burn off some of the expensive, Byzantine fog around solar power.

“It’s really accessible,” he says. “We try to make the process as easy as possible for anyone applying for the co-op. Once you’ve signed that contract, there’s a 3-4 month wait that involves the authorization process, legislation, documentation, all that stuff. This includes the installer submitting the documentation to PEPCO which is out of our control, but when it comes to the front end elements such as contract application, consultation and evaluation, we walk the consumer through the process without cool for him. The only cost is the installation of the system which is paid directly to the installer. Another big part of SUN’s cooperative model, he says, is energy equity.

The Inflation Reduction Act apparently promises to help with that. According to Thomas Bartholomew, head of the DOEE’s Renewable Energy and Clean Transportation Division and administrator of their Solar for All program, many of the new tax credits in the law specifically target solar benefits for low-income communities.

This is achieved in part through legislation providing funding for longer term tax savings for those who opt for solar power. These savings are measured in investment tax credits. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, these credits are “federal tax credits claimed against the tax liability of residential, commercial and utility investors in solar energy ownership.”

Before the Inflation Reduction Act, these credits were 26% in 2022 and were due to drop to 22% next year and then disappear altogether. “To the credit of this bill, this year, officially, if you do a solar installation, it will be at 30% and stay there until 2032, then go back down to 26% after 2032.” Mishra explains, “That’s the big federal benefit for residential solar owners.”

These are the longest solar tax credits ever granted, which Bartholomew says is a signal to investors that solar power is going to be around for a while. For the district, this means more private capital for development and the catalysis of federal funding. In an ideal world, that also means more community solar.

As Akili West says, “In order to use public money, we would be wrong to push this for people who have money and could do it otherwise and not for people who not only don’t have the money but has no roof to put it. We need to think of ways to increase solar power, fund projects, and reduce people’s bills whether they have their own roof or not. We all have these roofs. We have parking lots, open spaces, municipal structures that can be used for solar energy.

Mishra, Bartholomew and West all pointed out things that prevented this vision and they overlapped in one place: PEPCO. The DC power grid is over a century old at this point, and its encryption custodian, the Potomac Electric Power Company, is working to modernize its physical infrastructure for a distributed energy system in which electricity is both consumed and produced. For Solar United Neighbors, this has a financial deterrent effect on people who want to go solar. Customers are being asked by their energy provider to forgo extra money for system upgrades or even downsize their solar systems.

“We had some reluctance from PEPCO in terms of connecting the systems to the network. When we go to interconnect to the network, PEPCO fights. We need to know the ground rules. How do they justify this and why is the cost passed on to the customer? DC has strong carbon neutrality goals, but if PEPCO continues to push back residential installations, it puts us in a very difficult position to meet those goals,” says Mishra.

The Thomas Bartholomew-administered DOEE program, Solar For All, aims to provide district residents who earn less than 80% of the area’s median income with access to free solar benefits, valued at approximately $500 per year. So far, they have registered nearly 6,200 homes. According to him, there is no cost apart from going through a few administrative steps. “We try to keep them very moderate, but once you join you get free benefits.” These hoops include proof that your income is below 80% of the area median, either with pay stubs or if you are already receiving assistance from the district government. Then all you have to do is sign an agreement to abide by the terms and conditions and attach your PEPCO account number.

Solar For All’s setbacks with PEPCO are not just about physical infrastructure, but also about digital infrastructure. “Our benefits flow through PEPCO’s billing system. If you are a beneficiary of our aid, you receive monthly credits for the value of the solar you subscribe to on your bill,” explains Bartholomew. Just as the power grid was not designed to generate electricity, PEPCO’s accounting system was not designed to benefit the solar industry.

To serve community members going solar, one of DOEE’s big goals is to move away from PEPCO. In Batholomew’s estimation, lower energy costs could help provide better benefits overall. “Maybe shift the credit benefit on people’s PEPCO bills to reduce overall community rent or community programs in low-income neighborhoods. We are looking to pilot this model over the next 5 years.

The DOEE projects growth of 2,000 to 3,000 homes per year in the Solar For All program, a rate boosted by the Cut Inflation Act and the funding it reserves. According to Bartholomew, “this should mean a lot for DC’s clean energy. There’s money in there for green banks, home installation of solar and high-efficiency appliances, and tax credits for high-efficiency windows, doors and heat pumps. All this should help reduce energy consumption and create energy production. »

Ideally, he says, this new legislation will reinforce the fact that if you have the ability to install solar, you’re leaving money on the table if you don’t. At the end of the Solar United Neighbors briefing, Mishra implored attendees, “If you are interested in solar energy, keep an eye out. Spread the word and get informed. If you have any questions, that’s what we’re here for, to make your life a little easier on the solar journey. Whether more administrative hurdles and infrastructural roadblocks can be knocked down in the way of this solar journey remains to be seen, but West summed it up nicely. “Like democracy, it is far from perfect. But it’s a good idea.”

Jack Darrell is a Petworth, DC resident and environmental journalist covering oceans, fisheries, tribal rights and climate policy. His work also appears in Earth Island Journal and High Country News. He enjoys playing music with his band The Fancy Little Boys.

Ryan H. Bowman