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Solar arrays

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Solar United Neighbors is collaborating with the city of Cleveland to bring rooftop solar energy to households that have historically been unable to afford it.

The plan is to install rooftop arrays on up to 10 low to medium income households and to collect information along the way that could lead to a broader expansion of solar power into less-wealthy communities of the city.

The installations should be smaller than a typical market-based installation and cost on average about $10,000, but the full cost will be covered by grants provided by the Leon Lowenstein Foundation of Connecticut, said Tristan Radar, Ohio program director for Solar United Neighbors.

The foundation gave $30,000 directly to SUN, he said, while an additional $70,000 was given to the Urban Sustainability Directors’ Network, which in turn gave the money to the City of Cleveland, Radar said.

To qualify for a solar rooftop array at no charge, a household’s income cannot exceed 200% of the poverty level, which is $53,000 for a family of four. Also, the roof must be in adequate condition to accommodate the panels.

Relying on solar power without having to pay for the installation will reduce a household’s energy costs, which are disproportionately greater for low-income households, said Anand Natarajan, energy manager for the City of Cleveland, and it could also mean fewer subsidies provided by utilities to customers who can’t afford to keep their lights on.

Solar United Neighbors has already helped create nine solar co-ops in Cuyahoga County that have resulted in 211 rooftop installations. A 10th co-op in the process of being organized will operate like the other nine with customers banding together to negotiate the best price for their individual installations.

But participation from Cleveland households in those market-based co-ops “has been historically low for obvious reasons,” Natarajan said, which is why a separate pilot program to help low-to-medium income homes was established.

The primary barrier to embracing rooftop solar power by low-income households is cost, Radar said, but others could include a roof that is not able to accommodate solar panels, issues with the home’s electrical system or necessary upgrades to the surrounding power grid.

The plan is to collect data about the program, including cost savings to the customers and how much energy they consume, Natarajan said, and to then perhaps use that data to convince foundations to fund more installations.

Other options could include seeking crowd-funding investments or asking those who can afford to participate in market-based programs to contribute a little extra to help fund an array for someone who couldn’t otherwise afford it, Natarajan said.

Yet another way to extend solar energy to low-income homes could be through subsidizing power-purchase agreements in which a third party owns and maintains the rooftop arrays for a price that still results in lower electricity costs for a household, said Mike Foley, sustainability director for Cuyahoga County.

While Solar United Neighbors has assisted with low-income co-ops in other states, this is the first time it has provided such an opportunity in Ohio, Radar said.

Participants in what’s being called the LMI Solar Project will be recruited from across the city, but because availability is limited, everyone who qualifies may not be selected for the pilot program. If interested in participating in the LMI program or SUN’s market-based co-op, go to this link and sign up.

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