Program discounts solar for the poor

CALIFORNIA - The cost of going solar just dropped for some low-income California families.

Nearly 7,000 such households could get free or discounted solar roofs thanks to a $108 million subsidy program adopted by the state Public Utilities Commission. A solar roof for a two-bedroom California home generally runs from $20,000 to $24,000, putting the price out of reach for many homeowners. The program aims to help low-income families get the advantages of solar energy - lower monthly bills and environmental benefits.

Under the program, about 50 percent to 75 percent of the cost of a new solar roof will be covered for about 5,000 low-income homeowners. In addition, about 1,800 households with incomes of as much as 50 percent of their area's median income will get free roofs subsidized by the Public Utilities Commission.

In Alameda County, the median household income in 2004 was $57,659, and Contra Costa County's median income was $65,459 that year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Harnessing energy from the sun provides power without adding nearly as much pollution into the air as traditional coal-powered energy plants.

"This is terrific for low-income Californians," said Susan Carothers of the Public Utilities Commission. "It's going to open up opportunities for all." A spokeswoman for the Utilities Reform Network, or TURN, a consumer advocacy organization focused on California utilities, was less optimistic.

"It sounds like a good idea," said Mindy Spatt. "TURN pushed very hard to have this program not be about subsidizing wealthy homeowners to go solar. Benefits of this program should flow to everybody, but the devil is in the details.

"Our concern is whether there will be actual benefits to these people," she said. "Will word get out to low-income households so they can apply? Will the program really make solar accessible to the poorest of the poor?"

In response, Carothers said, "I think that's why it's so critical that we hire the most knowledgeable program manager. That person will be opening doors for those with low incomes and educating them on how to apply for this." The hunt for a program manager has just begun, Carothers said.

The selection process will be wrapped up in early 2008, and it could be mid-2008 before homeowners can start applying to be approved for solar roofs. "(The program manager) is going to have to understand the benefits of solar and they're going to have to develop an outreach plan to find those who qualify across this beautiful state of ours," Carothers said.

The program is part of a statewide initiative to install enough solar panels to generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity. Under normal conditions, 1 megawatt is enough to power 750 homes.


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