Solar technology’s pricing continues to trend downward, but the cost to go solar is still prohibitive for a large swath of Americans. Advanced solar market California has created programs to address energy inequity in disadvantaged communities — the places most affected by pollution and climate change. The state’s latest incentive recently marked one year in operation.
The Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) program started in July 2019 and is responsible for a pipeline of 84 MW of new or planned solar construction in California’s investor-owned utility territories, targeting communities with low PV penetration. To compare, the Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) program, a similar state incentive, has brought 41.9 MW of solar projects to the state since 2008.
SOMAH is slated to run for 10 years and has an annual operating budget of up to $100 million from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Cap-and-Trade Program. With that funding, SOMAH’s physical goal at the end of its lifecycle is to bring 300 MW of new solar to the state’s underserved communities, and ultimately reduce the cost of energy for those tenants.
“Historically, solar has only been available for middle income and above,” said Jae Berg, program manager on the SOMAH administration team. “Our idea is to use these incentives to put solar on affordable housing and make sure these folks are able to have the same access to the renewable energy source.”
As an added layer of administrative accountability, SOMAH looped in four community-based organizations to handle program outreach and solar education in their respective communities. SOMAH also enlisted the help of industry groups like GRID Alternatives to ensure there is a job creation opportunity with every install.
“Driving direct economic benefits for the tenants, virtual net metering — we want to create jobs through the job training requirements and provide direct assistance to disadvantaged communities,” said Berg.
Creating onsite solar jobs
To further stimulate economic growth in these communities, SOMAH requires that each solar installation brings on one to two job trainees, depending on system size. Eligible trainees must be enrolled or recently graduated from a relevant solar training program, or live in the property where the system is being installed.
SOMAH’s job training program has learned lessons from other state initiatives like the Low-Income Weatherization Program to achieve tandem goals of building improvements and workforce development. The weatherization program encourages contractors to hire trainees locally and prioritize hiring those who are experiencing barriers to employment.
SOMAH trainees are paid an entry-level wage, which is 1.4-times the local minimum wage, by the contractor. Each job guarantees 40 hours of paid training, and up to 80 hours if the system is above 100 kW. Trainees are placed in one of three positions: installation, design or project management.
Although the SOMAH legislation didn’t set a target for job training, program administers have high expectations.
“We’d like the see that number in the thousands, as well as see those trainees get hired,” said Staci Hoell, workforce development manager with SOMAH.
At the time of writing, SOMAH had applications from 200 eligible job trainees, with 48% of those coming from disadvantaged communities. The program has received 400 project applications, which translates to about 750 job opportunities.
The program is currently engaging 80 active trainees. People interested in the training program enroll on SOMAH’s website and check a portal like other job listing sites.
Delayed but promising start
SOMAH is trying to encourage multifamily solar development through financial incentives for system owners and PV contractors alike. At least 51% of the renewable energy generated by SOMAH projects must be directed to the tenants, and their rent cannot increase in the process. The incentive grows depending on how much energy is directed toward tenants.
Like most every other industry in the world, the emergence of COVID-19 delayed solar operations. The first round of SOMAH solar projects was slated to start construction in Q2 2020, but due to state shutdowns, installations were delayed. Still, SOMAH has continued receiving applications from contractors and multifamily property owners through the pandemic.
More than a quarter of the multifamily installation projects in SOMAH’s current pipeline are based in overall disadvantaged communities, and 90% of the current projected capacity will benefit tenants directly. The planned arrays are primarily rooftop systems and some carports.
SOMAH uses CalEnviroScreen, a program that illustrates pollution levels in California communities, as a framework to determine which projects are high-priority, and is advised by its community partners about where to focus on developing new solar.
“There’s a restorative justice aspect to SOMAH,” said Chris Walker, program director with Grid Alternatives and program administrator for SOMAH. “On the one hand, we’re taking cap-and-trade dollars, and we’re applying them to communities that both contribute the least and see the worst effects of climate change and environmental racism, but there is also an irony in that.”
When businesses had to shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a reduction in greenhouse gases produced by the industries governed by cap-and-trade and the revenues accompanying them.
“We are keeping an eye on that to affect potential funding and it would not be, for instance, a just outcome if a temporary pause in the massive pollution that these communities have to face affects their ability to receive some aspect of restorative justice through these program funds,” Walker said.
Unexpected COVID effects aside, California’s dedication to bringing solar power to underserved communities is a forward-thinking model that can be used as a guide for other states with advanced solar markets.
“Our community-based organizations really try to organize in those hotspots, not only because those communities are on the frontlines of climate and environmental racism, but because those communities also have the assets to solve those problems themselves,” Walker said. “Rather than parachuting in as this bureaucratic, quasi-state-funded effort, we try to the extent as possible to work with groups like our community-based organizations to keep their voices at the forefront, to not only to make sure the program is serving disadvantaged communities, but so that disadvantaged communities have a seat at the table in determining how the program should play out.”
This story is part of Solar Power World’s annual Regional Solar Policy Report. Find out more in our digital edition of the magazine.