Advocates struggle to expand household solar power

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(Host) The rise in energy prices is spurring more and more states to help homeowners pay for solar panels, which have an upfront cost of more than $40,000.

But even with government help, most low-income people can’t afford them.

As part of a collaboration with Northeast public radio stations, WFCR’s Tina Antolini reports on the challenge of getting solar energy to more people.

(Antolini) On the outskirts of Greenfield in western Massachusetts, workers are sawing up lumber to build a cluster of new houses. This could be any construction site. But developer Anne Perkins points out something on one roof that’s new.

(Perkins) "So, on the two outsides, you’re seeing the solar electric systems, and as you can see, there are more on the right side than on the left side, because that’s a three-bedroom home… "

(Antolini) Photovoltaic arrays cover nearly every inch of the roof…They’re the reason Mary Sirum wants to live here.

(Sirum) “Have you met Mary? Mary’s going to buy Lot 4; we’ve just got to get it poured."

(Antolini) Sirum, who’s in her 60s, works as a lab technician in a local hospital.

(Sirum) “I’m looking at retirement in the next five or six years. And I want it to be settled; I want it to be someplace that I knew that I could live for a number of years, economically comfortable, physically comfortable."

(Antolini) Economic comfort is a driving force behind this "solar village." Electricity for Sirum and other residents will cost almost nothing, says Anne Perkins, of Rural Development, Incorporated. She builds homes in one of the poorest counties in the state.

(Perkins) “You know, our mission is to help people in Franklin County have decent, safe and affordable housing. And today affordable housing for people of all incomes includes being incredibly energy efficient."

(Antolini) But it’s a scramble to finance any kind of low-income housing. And adding costly solar panels to the mix makes it even tougher. The key funder for these panels was a Massachusetts program financed by state ratepayers. It doled out 25 million dollars in grants for things like renewable technologies specifically to developers of affordable housing. But such a program is rare in the northeast… Though it’s getting less so.

Dale McCormick heads the state Housing Authority in Maine. She says high energy prices are pushing forward new programs that target renewables for the low-income population.

(McCormick) "I think I’ve gotten everybody here finally convinced that energy is housing and housing is energy and they’re inextricably linked."

(Antolini) Maine is starting a program that finances solar hot water loans for owners of the housing authority’s buildings. Rhode Island is putting together something similar. But other states in the region rely more heavily on incentives and rebates to help low income homeowners. However, even a good rebate only goes so far…

(Bowles) "People still have to come up with a lot of money on their own. And a lot of people just don’t have access to that. So it tended to attract people that were moderate income or higher."

(Antolini) That’s Tim Bowles, chairman of Connecticut’s Clean Energy Fund, the day he announced a new program. It leases photovoltaic systems to low and middle income households with no down payment. The state and its financial partners leverage federal tax credits available only to businesses and combine them with a state rebate. The hope is homeowners could use what they’ll save on utility bills to pay for the lease. But it may not be that simple. Joel Gordes, an independent energy consultant in Connecticut, says he applauds the idea of the lease program…

(Gordes) "But it’s a matter of, is it really going to hit the low, the real-low-income people, or what. That’s the question."

(Antolini) The average lease will cost 120 dollars a month for fifteen years. Then the family would own the solar panels. So it may be cost-effective only over the long term. But many say solar energy shouldn’t be the first priority for low-income families. Philip Giudice, Massachusetts’ Commissioner of Energy Resources, says it just doesn’t offer the biggest bang for some residents’ buck.

(Guidice) "You know lots of homes across New England are leaking heat, out around cracks around windows and doors and are not effectively sealed. And I would strongly encourage all of us– low-income, moderate-income, high-income homes– to really redouble our efforts to be much more efficient about our energy usage."

(Antolini) And putting conservation first is something even Anne Perkins, the developer of the Massachusetts solar village agrees with… After that, she says solar panels are "icing on the cake."

For VPR News, I’m Tina Antolini.

(Host Outro) Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Initiative. The reporting is made possible, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.

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