U.S. Low-Income Solar Programs & Incentives (2022)
American author and activist James Baldwin once said, “anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
Energy in America is no exception. As the U.S. Department of Energy explains, “low-income households pay a disproportionately higher share of income toward energy-related expenses.” The share that a household pays toward energy is known as an energy burden.
Easing the energy burden of our nation’s most vulnerable households is just one of solar energy’s biggest benefits. The growth of solar energy has the power to decrease dependence on public utilities, provide jobs and clean up the communities impacted most by pollution associated with energy generation.
In other words, homes with the lowest incomes have the most to gain from the benefits of solar energy. As a result, nonprofit organizations, governmental bodies and municipalities alike are working to narrow the solar equity gap and make clean sources of energy accessible to all. In this article, we’ll elaborate on that solar equity gap, as well as provide resources for low-to-middle-income families that need assistance for entry into solar.
Addressing the Solar Equity Gap
First, let’s talk about the challenges for low-income communities when it comes to energy. Low-income families are far more likely to have outsized energy burdens for a few reasons:
- Low-income families are more likely to rent (and renters typically foot the bill for electricity)
- Low-income families are more likely to live in climates with extreme heat and humidity, requiring greater energy for climate control
- Landlords with renters have little incentive to upgrade a home’s energy efficiency
- Low-income areas are more likely to have poor energy infrastructure, increasing the costs associated with transmission and distribution (and therefore overall rates)
- Don’t even get me started on who can afford electric vehicles, avoiding the rising gas prices…
Let’s let the data tell the story. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE):1
- The median energy burden of Black households is 43% higher than that of white households
- The median energy burden of Native American households is 45% higher than that of white households
- The median energy burden of Hispanic households is 20% higher than that of white households
Bear in mind that these lower-income demographics are also the most affected by a changing climate and environmental pollution.
Next, let’s talk about finances. When looking at solar, it’s important to think of it as an investment. Similar to buying a home with a loan, financing a solar energy system provides the most long-term value to those who can afford the largest down payment and secure the lowest rates with high credit. This barrier to entry presents huge challenges to low-income families.
We also frequently emphasize the importance of owning a solar system rather than signing a solar lease, yet many low-income households are still priced out of that opportunity. You can see in the chart below the clear financial benefits from purchasing rather than leasing, and how the most wealth accumulation happens for those able to pay the most up front.
So, what support is currently available to low-income homes looking to go solar? It’s best to look at these incentives in two categories: single-family and multifamily programs.
Single-Family Programs and Incentives by State
The incentives that we’ll outline below are meant to provide assistance to families defined as “low-income,” meaning at or below 80% of the area’s median income. As we’ve covered, this demographic has to shoulder an outsized energy burden and requires the most federal assistance. Here’s an overview of low-income solar incentives for single-family homes:
California’s SASH & DAC-SASH Programs
The California Solar Initiative (CSI) offers a Single-family Affordable Solar Homes Program (SASH), which provides incentives for eligible affordable single-family housing. SASH aims to:
- Offset electricity usage and reduce energy bills with solar energy
- Provide full and partial financial assistance for solar systems for low-income participants
- Lower the expense of solar ownership
- Develop sustainable, economically viable energy solutions
- Provide job training and employment opportunities in the renewable energy sector
The California Disadvantaged Communities Single-family Solar Homes Program (DAC-SASH) has the same aims, but it has a more selective income bracket to ensure fair distribution of funds.
To apply: Applications are managed by GRID Alternatives, and more information on the process can be found on its website. The DAC-SASH program is set to expire at the end of 2030.
Colorado Energy Office Rooftop Solar PV Program
The Colorado Energy Office (CEO) Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) offers financial assistance for rooftop solar equipment to specifically target those impacted by high energy burdens. WAP projects have been able to save rooftop solar clients more than $400 annually by reducing their electricity costs.2 In addition to solar panels, the program also offers assistance with:
- Energy audits
- Energy conservation education
- Air infiltration sealing
- Insulation in attic, floors and walls
- Furnace repair or replacement
- LED light bulbs
- High-efficiency appliances
- Air source heat pumps
To apply: More information can be found on the Colorado Energy Office website.
Washington, D.C. Solar for All
Solar for All, a Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) program, employs local solar providers to design and install solar photovoltaic (PV) systems at no cost to income-qualified D.C. homeowners. The Solar for All program reports that installed systems carry the potential to decrease energy bills by as much as $500 per year.3 The program entails:
- Increased low-to-middle-income (LMI) solar incentives such as no-cost installations, lower credit requirements, or interest rates for LMI customers depending on income bracket
- Pairing rooftop solar panels with energy-efficiency packages to maximize energy savings
- Increased public support for solar installers to be more accessible to the LMI solar market
To apply: More information can be found on the D.C. Sustainable Energy website.
Hawaii Green Infrastructure Authority GEMS Financing Program
The Green Energy Market Securitization Program (GEMS) is a green financing program created by the Hawaii State Energy Office to make clean energy improvements more accessible and affordable for Hawaii residents who may otherwise have difficulty obtaining financing for these projects. Low-credit homeowners and renters, as well as nonprofits and small businesses, may qualify for project financing through GEMS. The program entails:
- A rate reduction structure to finance residential and commercial clean energy infrastructure
- On-bill repayment structures, through which borrowers pay for their solar equipment over time through their electricity bill and their energy savings
To apply: More information can be found on the Hawaii Green Infrastructure Authority GEMS Financing Program’s website.
Illinois Solar for All
Illinois Solar for All increases accessibility for solar energy projects by serving low-income and environmental justice communities. Incentives are made available for residential properties, properties that house nonprofits and public facilities, and community solar projects serving customers with low incomes. Customers are paired with pre-approved vendors to carry out the installations.
- No upfront costs
- Assurance that ongoing costs and fees won’t surpass 50% of the value of the energy generated by the system
To apply: More information can be found on the Illinois Solar for All Website.
Minnesota Xcel Energy’s Solar Rewards Program
Regional utility company Xcel Energy offers a Solar Rewards program through which specific incentives are set aside for income-qualified customers with limited financial resources. Income-qualified customers can invest in a solar garden or solar panels for a single-family home, townhome, apartment building or business. Income-qualified residential systems have both up-front and performance-based incentives as outlined below.
- Performance incentive per kWh: $0.04
- Up-front incentive value per watt: $2 (if your system is 10 kW, that’s a $20,000 discount)
To apply: Application materials can be found on Xcel Energy’s Solar Rewards website.
New York Affordable Solar Program
New York’s Solar Program, also known as NY-Sun, incentivizes solar contractors and developers to offset the cost of going solar throughout the state. Incentives are sent directly to participating contractors who use the funds to accept customers from lower income brackets that normally would not be able to afford the cost of solar. Incentive rates will vary. To be eligible, you must be earning 80% or less than the area median income.
To apply: To find out what incentives you may be eligible for, find a participating contractor in New York State.
Oregon Solar & Storage Rebate Program
Oregon’s solar rebate program offers a 40% rebate (capped at $7,500) toward the net cost of solar panels and solar batteries for all its residents. However, for the state’s low-to-middle-income households, the state bumps the rebate up to 60%.
To apply: Visit the Oregon Department of Energy’s website to learn more.
Multi-Family Programs By State
In the U.S., about 25% of low-income households (earning 80% or less of the area median income) reside in multifamily housing units.6 Historically, solar energy is geared toward single-family homes, but as the need for multi-family housing increases across the nation, the paradigm will begin to shift.
California Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) Program
The SOMAH program provides financial incentives for installing photovoltaic (PV) energy systems on multifamily affordable housing units throughout California. The program will deliver clean power and credits on energy bills to hundreds of thousands of the state’s affordable housing residents.
To apply: Visit the SOMAH website to learn more about the application process.
Benefits of Solar Energy
Although solar can be a big investment, it actually helps homeowners save thousands on energy bills in the long run. In fact, in the U.S., the average solar household saves more than $22,000 over their panels’ 25-year lifespan — but most systems will last beyond 25 years, providing an even greater return on investment.
In addition to lowering home energy bills and easing the energy burdens of our nation’s most vulnerable, utilizing solar energy provides a handful of additional benefits to the environment, our social welfare and economy. The most notable benefits of solar include:
- Offsetting the carbon emissions associated with conventional energy
- Improving local air and water quality due to decreased pollution
- Increasing the property value of your home
- Providing eligibility for rebates and tax incentives
- Lowering dependence on utilities and fossil fuels
- Creating job opportunities
- Providing reliable backup power during grid failures when coupled with solar batteries
Learn more about the pros and cons of solar energy.
Karsten Neumeister is a writer and solar energy specialist with a background in writing and the humanities. Before joining EcoWatch, Karsten worked in the energy sector of New Orleans, focusing on renewable energy policy and technology. A lover of music and the outdoors, Karsten might be found rock climbing, canoeing or writing songs when away from the workplace.