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Californian solar programme turns attention to low-income renters

Proceeds from California’s climate-change programme will, over the next decade, be used to establish roughly 150,000 low-income renters’ apartment buildings outfitted with solar panels.

Regulations approved last week cleared the way for the US state to spend $1 billion over 10 years on incentives for landlords to install rooftop solar panels on apartment buildings housing low-income residents.

This will benefit the low-income renters as their electricity bills will drop.

To qualify for the Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) programme, an apartment building must include at least five subsidised units for low-income tenants.

Additionally, it must either be located in a disadvantaged area or be inhabited mostly by families earning 60% of the area’s typical income.

It will be the landlord’s responsibility to apply for the incentives.

Legally, at least 51% of the utility savings must go back to the tenant — a key aspect of the programme.

Solar programme spotted market opportunity

“There’s been a lot of discussion about why we can’t get rooftop solar in the communities that need it most,” said Shana Lazero, legal director for the Richmond-based Communities for a Better Environment, which was part of a coalition that co-sponsored the solar legislation.

“One of the hardest nuts to crack is the rental market. It’s a huge step to solving one of the biggest pieces of the problem,” states Lazero.

A criticism of California’s early climate-change approach was that the poor and working class were paying more to subsidise the electric vehicles and solar panels of the wealthy — “and there was some truth to that,” said Ethan Elkind, a UC Berkeley law professor who directs the school’s Centre for Law, Energy and Environment.

From costly solar panels to costlier Teslas, renewable energy is often associated with environmentally conscious elites — not poor families who live near factories and crowded freeways, suffering the most from the side-effects of a fossil fuel economy.

But in recent years, Elkind said, the state legislature has tried to democratise its climate-change initiatives by investing more in those hit hardest by pollution. Read more on: Research foretells a decline in US solar installations

“There are strong moral reasons to do that. There are strong economic reasons, too,” he said. “We want more people in California, particularly low-income people in disadvantaged communities, to feel a stake in the state’s climate programs and receive benefits from them.”

Lazero said she hoped that the first panels would be installed in the fall of 2018.

As they become more common, solar panels have steadily gotten cheaper to install, said Kelly Knutsen, a senior policy adviser for the association. The cost per watt — $4.10 in 2015 — was $11.20 in 2000, according to data by the trade group.