Solar fair: SMUD program offers energy upgrades to low-income households

Partnership with GRID Alternatives intended to offset upcoming rate increases

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.
This is an extended version of a story that ran in the June 29, 2017, issue.

Climate change or no—nobody wants to pay high utility bills.

The Sacramento Municipal Utilities District is working with Oakland-based nonprofit GRID Alternatives to bring solar panels to low-income homeowners. Under the partnership, GRID Alternatives installs solar panels at the homes of lower-earning SMUD customers in disadvantaged neighborhoods, while the utility district performs weatherization and other energy-efficiency upgrades.

So far, 60 homes have been outfitted with solar panels in the last year. Another 150 are expected to be upgraded over the next 17 months. SMUD customers with solar panels still pay for distribution charges—the cost of delivering energy to homes—but also receive money for unused solar energy.

The new solar program is intended, in part, to offset upcoming rate increases. SMUD’s residential customers will see their rates increase 1.5 percent next year. Rates will go up by 2 percent over the next two years for nonresidential users.

The partnership doesn’t benefit renters, though, who make up 46 percent of county residents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the homeownership rate in Sacramento County declined from 62 percent in 2009 to 56 percent in 2015, an inequality rate double the state’s, which saw homeownership dip from 57 to 54 percent.

SMUD provides renters with LED light bulbs, smart outlets and fans, and is working on other programs that will require the utility district to coordinate with apartment building owners before moving forward.

GRID Alternatives and SMUD both said providing savings to low-income renters is a challenge that should be addressed.

“We are working with UC Davis to do a more in-depth study of solar systems for renters in affordable housing and nonprofits that host shelters. These are areas that, as a nonprofit, our mission is to bring these resources to,” said GRID spokeswoman Rebekah Casey. “These communities remain under-resourced.”

She referenced a study by nonprofit Clean Energy Group that said recent rate decisions by the CPUC could reduce energy bill savings by over 50 percent over the next few years. The study said these savings could be preserved, though, with investments in battery storage.

Beyond the SMUD partnership, GRID has installed solar technology at another 260 homes throughout Sacramento. But Casey said more must be done.

The GRID-SMUD program is funded by California Climate Investments, a state program that uses cap-and-trade money to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in low-income communities. Other programs in the Sacramento area provide free, electric Zipcars in three affordable housing complexes and 29 green school buses in North Sacramento. SMUD is also putting $10 million of its own money into energy savings programs over the next several years.

To qualify for the solar panel program, residents must own and live in their homes; have usable roofs; earn less than 80 percent of their area’s median income ($50,240 or less in the county); and live in a disadvantaged community as identified by the California Environmental Protection Agency, which SMUD and GRID Alternatives can determine.