By Greg Horner and Vero Bourg-Meyer
The rooftop solar industry is booming, but far too few lower-income Americans are benefiting as a result. It’s a “modern version of redlining,” according to Joe Evans of the Kresge Foundation. Now an increasing number of charitable foundations are stepping up to redress that injustice, using a range of approaches to bring the benefits of solar to the communities that need it most.
Thanks to foundations, more than 300 solar panels were installed in the Hopi and Navajo Nations in Arizona, creating jobs and providing reliable electricity to health centers, schools and other community buildings. A former coal mining area in West Virginia became a hub of solar development, with a comprehensive solar job-training program. Dozens of Wisconsin nonprofits received free solar panels, accelerating their shift to clean energy and boosting enthusiasm for solar in their communities. And 24 U.S. health centers in areas at risk for natural disasters developed solar systems with battery backup to supply power when the grid goes down.
The strategies and structures that enabled these projects varied widely. A recent report from the Clean Energy States Alliance, based on work funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, presents eight models that foundations are using to support solar and solar-plus-storage development in low- and moderate-income communities — each with a different combination of tactics, partnerships and financial approaches. These models include:
- Cost-reduction strategies, such as grants, regrants and donations of solar panels
- Market-building and financial-access strategies, such as loans, loan guarantees
and equity investments
- Demand-side strategies, such as technical assistance funds and capacity-building
Foundations often maximize their impact by focusing not on rooftop solar for individual homes, but on solar installations for community-serving institutions such as health centers, affordable housing, senior centers and schools.
Here are some of the models foundations are using and example projects they’ve undertaken.
Donating solar panels
The Wisconsin-based Couillard Solar Foundation provides nonprofit organizations with solar panels. By purchasing panels directly and donating them to each grantee, Couillard achieves economies of scale from bulk purchasing, which lowers the overall cost of projects. “If someone came and asked for a bottle of water, you could give them a dollar to buy a bottle, or you could go buy 100 bottles at a much lower cost per unit,” said Sam Dunaiski of Renew Wisconsin, which manages Couillard’s grant programs.
To amplify the foundation’s impact, the solar panels come with other support, including small grants for project development costs, technical assistance, and help raising funds for remaining project costs.
Providing loans to project developers
The Kresge Foundation made a loan to Collective Energy, a for-profit project developer focused on solar and solar-plus-storage projects at federally qualified health centers that provide services in low-income communities. The developer maintains ownership of the solar array, and sells the electricity to the end user at a lower cost than utility power, through a power purchase agreement. This results in both savings and a resilient power system for the grantee, with no upfront costs or risk. Kresge’s loan to Collective Energy reduced the cost of capital for the projects, catalyzed other investments, and created a revolving loan fund that supported multiple projects.
Technical assistance funding
The Surdna Foundation partnered with The Kresge Foundation to provide grant funding to nonprofit organization Clean Energy Group to launch a technical assistance fund to help community organizations evaluate the potential for solar-plus-storage installations at critical community facilities in underserved communities. This fund has provided over $1 million in technical assistance awards over the past nine years, supporting nonprofits, affordable-housing developers and providers, and others serving low-income communities, environmental justice communities, and communities of color.