East Baltimore’s CARE Program Brings Solar to Low-Income Neighborhoods

By Joe Gibbons

If there is one group that has been left behind in the solar energy revolution, it’s low-income urban communities. This is due to the fact that many of the policies and incentives that have been implemented to promote solar adoption have instead erected barriers for low-income families. Fortunately, new programs are sprouting up all over the country and bringing solar to these communities, which stand to gain the most from clean energy at affordable rates.

The many obstacles facing low-income families interested in solar can be daunting. The upfront cost of a rooftop solar system can cost anywhere between $15,000 and $40,000; consumers are required to pay the costs before any savings or reimbursement come into play. Of course, leasing or financing can be an option, but these require consumers to have a high credit score, which many low-income families do not have. Finally, to own or lease solar equipment, families usually must own their homes, something that is much less likely in low-income urban neighborhoods (many live in rented homes and apartments). These barriers contribute to high levels of energy insecurity, which occurs when a significant amount of household income is devoted to heating and energy, placing many in a “heat or eat” situation. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, households with after-tax earnings between $5,000 and $10,000 spend 27 percent of their income on energy utilities and fuels, while households with after-tax income over $150,000 spend only 3% of their income on these items.

Fortunately, many policymakers at the state and local levels, along with partners in the private and nonprofit sectors, are acting to address these issues. One of the latest initiatives arose in East Baltimore, where a new program seeks to help low-income residents benefit from solar. More specifically, via the Caring Active Restoring Efforts (CARE) program, 10 families will have the opportunity to have solar panels installed on their homes. The program will also result in a community center being built, and residents will receive 1,600 hours of hands-on solar training in order to open up new employment opportunities for local residents in the solar space. Project partners include Grid Alternatives, the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, and the Baltimore Energy Challenge.

These kinds of programs are good for low-income communities and for solar generally. A recent study conducted by Vanderbilt University found that despite spending billions of dollars in support of policies that reimburse well-off households for their investments in solar, such programs would have been more effective if they had been designed for more inclusivity, by, for example, facilitating solar installation for low-income households at little or no cost. Such programs would have done more to stimulate the adoption of rooftop solar systems than the incentive-based approaches.

The CARE project in Baltimore represents a positive step in the right direction – toward assuring that more people are able to participate in the clean energy revolution. CARE is a small program, but if it’s successful, it could provide yet another template for other areas looking to level the playing field in the solar space. That the program also provides workforce training makes it even more impactful for areas that are hungry for new jobs and economic development. Ultimately, increasing the number of solar homes in low-income areas will help to raise awareness of the benefits of clean power and help more families become less energy insecure, which could yield savings that can be allocated to other pressing needs. In short, policymakers at every level should follow the CARE template and seek to work with businesses, utilities, and other organizations to expand solar access to those who would otherwise be excluded.