September 18, 2014

A solar future, today

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A solar future today

Like many homeowners concerned with both the state of the planet and the state of my utility bills, I’ve recently begun to explore the feasibility of installing solar panels on my own home in Washington, D.C.  The experience has been eye-opening.

Among the facts I’ve learned, I’ve discovered that the price of installing a solar panel has dropped by more than 60 percent over the past few years, and it continues to plummet.  And, given the right state and local incentives, projects can begin saving money for residents within just a few years.  In fact, every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar.  And last year alone, solar jobs jumped 20 percent.  Once a boutique technology, residential solar is now an economical way to reduce energy bills, cut carbon pollution, and create jobs in underserved communities.

On Thursday, I accompanied HUD Secretary Julian Castro on a tour of two solar installations on affordable housing sites.  The first was an event hosted by HUD’s Better Buildings Challenge Partner, the National Housing Trust (NHT).  NHT recently finished installing panels on five multifamily buildings in Washington, D.C., that will generate 300,000 kilowatt hours each year in electricity and 10,000 therms for hot water.

The next stop on the tour was a solar installation being completed on a Habitat for Humanity home by non-profit solar Installer GRID Alternatives.  As HUD works to fulfill the President’s Climate Action Plan goal of reaching more than 100 megawatts of renewable energy on federally subsidized housing by 2020, we are pleased to have GRID Alternatives as a partner.  While solar has become more and more accessible to middle-class families, low income families will be left behind if we do not continue to develop proactive solar policies and regulations to support their access to this technology and to the energy cost savings and increased reliability that comes from having a dual source of power .  Our partnership with GRID Alternatives is advancing this effort as we connect GRID’s low-income solar expertise with HUD’s extensive portfolio of assisted housing.

Finally, I want to highlight two major announcements in the realm of solar deployment.  The first, again right here in the District, is an announcement by the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA).  DCHA has just joined the President’s Better Buildings Challenge to reduce their portfolio-wide energy consumption by 20 percent within 10 years. This exciting challenge will allow the Housing Authority to build upon the work DCHA employees have already done as part of a $26 million Energy Capital Improvement Plan and a myriad of energy efficiencies they have included at many of their properties.

To kick off the efforts, DCHA will identify solar opportunities at 20 different sites in their portfolio.   Initial estimates show this will achieve an annual reduction of 707,000 kilowatt hours – an amount equivalent to emissions from 1,160,744 miles of automobile travel (or 488 metric tons of CO2 annually) in our air.

Solar installer SunEdison has signed contracts with eight Public Housing Authorities in Massachusetts (Fall River, New Bedford, Winchendon, Leominster, Barnstable, Somerset, Plymouth, and Fairhaven) which will provide over 13 megawatts of renewable energy credits to low-income buildings.  SunEdison will install solar panels offsite, but allow the Housing Authorities to take advantage of the renewable energy credits.  This innovative structure helps housing authorities save money, even if they aren’t able to put panels on their own roofs. Over the near term, SunEdison plans to work with HUD and additional Public Housing Authorities to provide over 25 additional megawatts of credits.

These are just a few examples of how affordable housing owners and residents are taking climate change to heart, and using the power of the sun to create greener, more resilient, communities.   These communities get it: Climate change is not a problem we should leave to future generations to solve – we can and must act now to build momentum around new ways of thinking about energy, including solar energy, and economic resilience.

I, for one, am excited to be a partner in their efforts.

Harriet Tregoning is the Director of the Office of Economic Resilience.

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