Oregon has been fairly progressive on addressing climate change. This year, it became the eighth state to commit to 100% clean or renewable electricity. Setting 2040 as the deadline for this transition, Oregon joins New York for the quickest timeline to 100% carbon-free energy in the country.
While utility-scale renewables will undoubtedly contribute the bulk of this new power, the state recognizes the benefits of solar and storage adoption for all and has included specific project rebate carveouts for low- and moderate-income (LMI) utility customers in recent legislation.
“Historically, the solar industry hasn’t focused on low-income rate payers, and that’s too bad. Those folks have decreased ability to pay the upfront costs for solar but really could benefit from the bill savings,” said Angela Crowley-Koch, executive director of the Oregon Solar + Storage Industries Association (OSSIA). “Programs that focus specifically on benefits to low-income ratepayers are really needed.”
Oregon passed at least two House bills in 2021 that encourage small-scale solar and storage adoption with extra focus paid to LMI customers. HB 5006, the state’s omnibus spending bill, allocates $10 million to the Oregon Dept. of Energy (ODOE) for solar and storage rebates — a 500% increase on rebates awarded just two years prior. And HB 3141 broadens the scope of funding available to the nonprofit Energy Trust of Oregon to support small-scale solar and other renewable energy systems. Both bills set aside 25% of the funding to serve LMI customers.
Not only is the state pushing a progressive carbon-reduction agenda, it’s also making sure everyone has access to the benefits.
Oregon Dept. of Energy incentives
Incorporating new rebates into Oregon’s spending bill was a group effort. The state had offered some residential energy tax credits before, but most incentives before this year were coming from a $2 million rebate program through the ODOE.
“We quickly ran out of funds,” Crowley-Koch said. “So this last session, we asked the legislature for more funding for the rebate program and received $10 million through the Dept. of Energy.”
Although OSSIA and other energy groups patted themselves on the back for the significant boost in rebates, most of that money can likely be attributed to COVID-19. After Congress passed its COVID relief bill, Crowley-Koch said it gave the state legislature some leeway on Oregon’s budget.
“The COVID relief money went to things like schools and healthcare and just relieved some pressure on other funds that the legislature had,” she said. “Clean energy is a priority, not just for the greenhouse gas reductions but also the economic development and support of small solar businesses in Oregon and job creation.”
Regardless of how the money came about, this new two-year program is doling out $10 million in two release dates, with 25% set aside for LMI customers. Traditional residential customers can receive up to a 40% rebate on solar and/or storage while LMI customers have access to a 60% rebate. Low-income service providers, such as multi-family affordable housing owners and assisted living centers, can also receive rebates for larger solar and storage systems.
Right now, the ODOE rebates apply to solar-only projects or solar systems paired with storage at the initial installation. Storage add-ons to existing solar systems cannot take advantage of the rebate program. But that may change, Crowley-Koch said, as more early solar adopters look into storage.
“We promoted including storage in the rebate. We have seen the demand for storage increase exponentially in Oregon,” she said. “In the past year, we have had two pretty severe power outage events. We had big wildfires on Labor Day 2020 and there were intense power outages all over the state. This last winter we had severe ice storms, and I think that was the biggest power outage that Portland General Electric ever had in their history. More people are interested in storage as a way to protect themselves and their families in case of a power outage.”
OSSIA found that although the initial $2 million rebate program had a 25% carveout for LMI ratepayers, over $1 million actually went to LMI customers.
“The program was very successful and very popular,” she said. “Half of the funds were given to lower and moderate-income households or low-income service providers, which is more than we thought possible.”
Another $5 million spent on solar and storage rebates to LMI customers over the next two years could make a big difference in the fight for equal access to clean energy.
Energy Trust of Oregon incentives
Energy Trust of Oregon has been helping state residents achieve lower utility bills through energy efficiency and renewable power adoption incentives for almost 20 years. Traditionally, Energy Trust has received its funding through a public purpose charge on customer bills from the state’s major investor-owned utilities. HB 3141 has moved funding from a public purpose charge into a standard rate and extends funding through 2035. The bill also requires 25% of the funds to serve LMI customers — a focus area that Energy Trust has been transitioning to already, said Dave McClelland, senior solar program manager.
“Five years ago, we had been comparing our investments to gas-powered plants, looking at the avoided cost of a gas-powered plant as the cheapest investments. In some ways, renewables had won. They were the cheapest, lowest-cost investments for the utility,” he said. “That triggered us to really rethink our programs. Rooftop solar can never compete with large-scale wind or large-scale solar on a purely cost basis. This drove us to think about what is unique about rooftop solar — what are the values that rooftop solar can bring that large-scale solar projects can’t?”
The group found that small-scale solar better supports equity, community resilience and grid flexibility. While focusing more on residential renewables, Energy Trust found further ways to expand equity. It launched the incentive program Solar Within Reach two years ago, which provides higher cash incentives for LMI households.
“Our goal in that first year was to get 50 of those projects, and we saw 200 installations,” McClelland said. “There was definitely some pent-up demand there.”
Instead of just focusing on solar adoption on LMI rooftops, Energy Trust is also helping the state develop a community solar program with an LMI carveout.
“We recognize that to really serve all of our customers, we have to serve customers who are in different circumstances. Not every customer can take advantage of a rooftop incentive that is focused on homeowners because many customers rent or live in multi-family housing. Community solar that’s community-led or focused on serving particular customers also needs to be part of the solution,” McClelland said.
HB 3141 cleans up some legislative language that will encourage more energy storage adoption by creating incentives for distribution-connected technology that supports reliability and resilience of the grid. McClelland said the LMI carveout will be applied to batteries as well.
“We acknowledge in the first round of solar incentives, there were certain customers left behind. We want to make sure that while storage is a new technology and there may be a role of early adopter customers pushing that market forward and helping drive down costs, we also want to be intentional about making sure all customers at least have some opportunity to be included in this transition,” he said.
In addition to recent wildfires, storms and other power shutoff events across the state, Heath Kearns, solar sales engineer with local installer Imagine Energy, said the available rebates are increasing storage interest in Oregon.
“Our year-over-year interest in batteries is unbelievable. Last year I was probably quoting batteries for 20% of leads that came in, and now it’s like 80%,” he said. “If they can afford to [install storage], of course they’ll do it, but now there’s an extra $2,500 to help them pay for it plus [other incentives]. Half the cost getting covered is pretty appealing.”
The combination of various rebate offers is increasing solar + storage adoption across all income levels of Oregon, but there’s a marked increase among low- and moderate-income ratepayers.
“With the [Solar Within Reach] incentive combined with the ODOE solar + storage rebate, we’re finally making solar affordable for everybody and really breaking down barriers and increasing access,” Crowley-Koch said. “I think that’s an appropriate focus. We need to be maximizing benefits for those who really could use that.”