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Community Solar for Community Action

New Solar Array Planned at SEVCA’s Westminster Location

Rendering of SEVCA’s 150kW solar array consisting of ground- and roofmounted systems. Image: John Ruvelson, RREAL

Rendering of SEVCA’s 150kW solar array consisting of ground- and roofmounted systems. Image: John Ruvelson, RREAL

By Becky Himlin

Over 33 million American households struggle with energy poverty, forcing them to make difficult choices between home energy and other basic necessities, such as health care, housing, or adequate nutrition. Currently, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which in Vermont includes supplemental state funding and is administered by the Department of Children and Families, offers seasonal fuel assistance and temporary emergency relief to low-income residents. However, a stopgap is not a solution, and nationwide energy assistance costs billions of dollars annually. Furthermore, fuel assistance for electricity is currently delivered directly to utilities, leaving low-income households with little choice in where their energy comes from. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), low- and moderate-income households make up 40% of the nation’s population but less than 5% of all solar customers. A lack of resources or viable financing options to make upfront investments in solar and benefit from the renewable energy tax credits available can create barriers to accessing sustainable energy opportunities.

Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), a nonprofit anti-poverty organization serving Windham and Windsor Counties in Vermont, plans to build, own, and manage an innovative community solar installation that will use virtual net-metering credits to deliver energy assistance directly to households with high energy burdens. This project, Community Solar for Community Action, will demonstrate a new, nationally relevant, scalable model of energy assistance, enabling low-income households to meet their energy needs while supporting the development of renewable energy resources.

The project will consist of a 150kW ground- and roof-mounted solar array sited on SEVCA’s property in Westminster, VT. Approximately 70 area low-income households with high energy burdens will become subscribers to the solar project, and receive virtual net- metering credits as a form of energy assistance. The system is projected to produce 196,284kWh per year (at a current value of $33,000) and save approximately 161 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

Community Solar for Community Action aims to showcase a fiscally responsible and environmentally appropriate alternative to conventional, fossil-fuel-based energy assistance. Vermont has a favorable regulatory environment for community solar projects, a population that is highly supportive of renewable energy, and a significant need for energy assistance among low-income households, making this a great testing-ground for this model. The project will help chart a new future towards a more sustainable low-income energy assistance program.

SEVCA has partnered with the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), a Minnesota-based nonprofit, which is helping to develop the project as part of the Solar in Your Community Challenge, a national contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). This $5 million contest aims to stimulate the development of “innovative and replicable community-based solar business models and programs that will bring solar to underserved communities” (https://www.solarinyourcommunity.org/). In addition to grants raised by RREAL from the DOE and an anonymous foundation, SEVCA was recently awarded a grant of $111,000 from the Windham Regional Commission’s Renewable Energy Grant Program to help make the project a reality. SEVCA hopes to at least partially integrate the project with the state’s Seasonal Fuel Assistance program, such that LIHEAP funding would be directly used to deliver sustainable energy assistance through the community solar project. The project team is currently in the process of identifying and selecting an appropriate contractor to complete the installation of the solar array.

Project goals include:

  • Reducing the energy burden of low-income households through applying virtual net-metering credits on their electricity bills, based on the energy generated by the solar array.
  • Enabling low-income households to support and benefit from development of renewable sources of energy, thereby participating in the transition to a more sustainable energy economy.
  • Reducing participating low-income households’ dependence on energy assistance by decreasing and stabilizing their energy costs.
  • Contributing to reducing and stabilizing SEVCA’s energy costs for the operation of its main office in Westminster, thereby freeing up scarce resources to use for services.

To learn more about the project, contact Becky Himlin at bhimlin@sevca.org.

Becky Himlin has been SEVCA’s Director of Planning and Development since 2014. She has worked for various nonprofit community development, human services, and advocacy organizations for the past 25 years.

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