Proposed legislation in New Jersey is the latest effort to provide energy bill relief and community solar access to overburdened communities.

Installing rooftop solar comes with upfront costs—it also requires home ownership and good credit, which has prevented over 75% of Americans from accessing the benefits of renewable energy. Community solar improves access by building local solar systems to provide power for multiple community members. This means residents can “subscribe” to the system and receive a credit on their electric bill for their portion of the energy they produce from a community solar project.

Community solar improves energy equity. The model, often known as “solar for all”, removes barriers that make it difficult for overburdened communities, traditionally left out of the clean energy revolution. In addition to providing opportunities to access solar energy, community solar also enables low-to-moderate income (LMI) households to lower their utility bills.

“The market as a whole benefits when more people have access,” says Jenny Heeter, senior energy analyst for National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “As states have thought about how they are going to scale up solar, the equity piece has started to come into play; [states are] realizing that solar has environmental benefits but also provides benefits to energy rate payers to reduce their electricity bills.”

In 2017, the Colorado Energy Office found that the households enrolled in eight low-income solar projects across the state saved between 15 and 50 percent on their electric bills, generating an average annual savings of $382.

The average subscriber to the Forefront Power community solar project in Maryland saves $127.68 per year on their power bills. Community solar also expands access to renters and those with low credit scores, addressing the inequities in the renewables sector.

“Community solar can help address the inequitable way in which climate justice impacts communities."

Erica MackieCo-founder and chief executive officer of GRID Alternatives, the largest nonprofit solar installer in the nation

Leading with Legislation

States like Colorado, Illinois and Massachusetts have all enacted community solar programs with low-income requirements and provide support to increase participation in LMI communities. In 2019, lawmakers in New Jersey proposed landmark legislation to expand community solar access in LMI communities.

Bill S-2484, which passed the Senate in November 2020 and is currently being considered in the Assemby, aims to expand access to renewables to overburdened communities by increasing state investments through community solar and energy storage.  The legislation would direct the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to establish the Office of Clean Energy Equity to “oversee the equitable deployment of clean energy and energy efficiency programs and technologies in overburdened communities, and the equitable provision of the tangible benefits of clean energy and increased energy efficiency at the household and community level…”

The legislation follows the 2019 launch of a three-year Community Solar Energy Pilot Program that allocated 40 percent of overall program capacity to projects that served LMI subscribers. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities [BPU] established a goal to double its community solar project capacity during the second year of the pilot.

“The governor of New Jersey put forward a very robust clean energy master plan that is designed to provide better equitable access to energy and community solar plays a very critical role in that plan,” explains Leslie Elder, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access. “The BPU has created an [Office of Clean Energy Equity] to look at these issues…it’s a huge signal that it’s a priority to utilize renewable energy to combat climate change at all levels of income.”

Legislation is essential for creating energy equity and social justice, according to Erica Mackie, co-founder and chief executive officer of GRID Alternatives, the largest nonprofit solar installer in the nation.

“[Community solar] can help address the inequitable way in which climate justice impacts communities,” she says. “There is a lot of interest in getting it [and] states and local jurisdictions are talking about how to create programs that all of their communities have access to…and when push comes to shove, it’s hard to get all of the pieces in place.”

Mackie believes that a big part of increasing access to community solar in LMI communities requires following a set of best practices outlined in the Low Income Solar Policy Guide.

Model programs reduce energy burden with immediate savings and no upfront costs, require minimal paperwork, offer added incentives, and prioritize consumer education and workforce development incentives. The proposed New Jersey legislation follows these guidelines.

The provisions in the bill include establishing a minimum of 400 megawatts of energy storage in overburdened communities by 2030 to benefit 25,000 low-income households (or 35 percent of households in the state).

The legislation also supports the integration of workforce development into clean energy programs; provides grants to increase participation among residents in overburdened communities; provides materials in multiple languages; and establishes an advisory board with a community liaison to conduct evaluations of the available programs and make suggestions for improvements.

Legislation, coupled with mandates like those in states such as Colorado, New York and Oregon, have programs that require participation from LMI subscribers, appear to be effective for improving renewable energy access—but there is always more work to be done.

“[Participation in community solar] is growing, but it’s still probably not representative of the income diversity that exists across the country,” Heeter says. “To me…that equity piece is something that the solar industry and the energy industry should be focused on because of this need to help people who need it the most.”

Legislation can pave the way to a more improved social justice and energy equity.