When Solstice Co-Founder & CEO Steph Speirs first decided that she wanted to bring affordable solar to every American household, she was halfway around the world. She had been working with local communities to expand solar access in off-grid rural communities in India, and one day she realized that the households that she talked to on a daily basis were often more likely to get access to solar than the average American household.
So Speirs joined forces with Co-Founders Sandhya Murali and Steve Moilanen to form Solstice. The more they looked into the issue of American energy equity, that more they encountered the same contradiction: while many people felt like they were the only ones with a shaded or unsuitable roof, or who couldn’t justify the upfront expense, approximately 80 percent of all American households couldn’t get rooftop solar.
The seeming uniqueness of each household’s solar barrier had rendered the problem invisible, but together, they formed a growing nationwide issue. The solar industry was beginning to reproduce many (but not all) of the same inequities of fossil-fueled energy systems.
Community Solar Can Be a Path to Energy Equity
Fortunately, a new model for solar was just gaining ground, and Solstice’s founders saw its potential to bring affordable, clean energy to more households. Community solar allows households to enroll in a local shared solar array and see savings on their electric bill, without any of the extra costs or installation problems introduced by putting it on a rooftop.
Still, a few key factors meant that many of the same households that were left out of rooftop solar were also excluded from community solar. Since its founding, Solstice has sought to change that, pursuing three key areas of action:
Solstice Makes Community Solar Contracts Affordable for All
When Solstice began, most community solar subscriptions required customers to sign on for the full 20-year life of the project and pay steep cancellation fees if they ever decided to cancel their contract or move out of the area. These measures allayed the fears of risk-wary solar financiers, but they were far from the bold and inclusive industry that we wanted to be a part of building—and even putting aside equity concerns, it made little long-term business sense to exclude the 42 million American households that rent their homes.
So, even as the Solstice team has used our community organizing expertise to help solar developers fill their community solar gardens, we have negotiated on behalf of our customers, working to shorten contracts and get rid of cancellation fees. And while we can’t take all the credit, the industry has started to realize that customer-friendly contracts are the way of the future: developers are increasingly waiving cancellation fees, and we’ve begun to see contract lengths of six years or less.
To directly address the concerns of solar financiers, we’ve also set out to create a fund, called a loan-loss reserve, that will protect financiers of pilot solar projects serving low-income communities from bearing any additional risk associated with shorter contracts.
The EnergyScore: A More Accurate and Inclusive Replacement for Restrictive Credit Score Requirements
Credit scores have long been used to predict whether or not people can be expected to pay certain bills. But the truth is that people’s ability to pay is a lot more complex than a single number—and credit score requirements disproportionately exclude low-income and communities of color. There are plenty of households that have paid their utility bills on time for years, but have a low credit score because they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck or using credit to make ends meet.
That’s why we’ve been working with the Department of Energy and analysts at MIT and Stanford to make a way of qualifying people that is specifically designed to understand their ability to pay their community solar bill. We’ve analyzed a truly massive amount of (anonymized!) consumer data and put together a metric that is projected to be both more accurate than FICO credit scores in predicting people’s ability to pay their energy bills and more inclusive of low-to-moderate income households.
This year, we’ll be testing the EnergyScore in real-life community solar projects around the country. We’re already working with Bright Power, Sol Purpose, Green City Force, and SolarOne to use the EnergyScore to bring solar and energy bill savings to New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) affordable housing residents, and we’re expecting to announce other project partnerships in the near future.
Solstice Advances Solar Policy for the Rest of Us
The evidence is clear: solar policies, and the solar industry as a whole, have so far failed to serve the needs of low-income communities in a truly representative fashion. That’s why it’s so important for advocate for the policy frameworks that have a measurable impact in increasing participation by underserved communities—policies which don’t just mandate low-income participation, but which provide businesses and organizations with the resources necessary to prove out project designs and outreach methods to serve these communities.
Through our leadership in the New York Energy Democracy Alliance, Solstice’s Inclusion Team has advocated for policies that directly address barriers to low-income participation, including:
Helping to shape a $21 million incentive for low-income community solar research and development
Pushing forward policies to increase compensation rates and private-sector financing for low-income community solar
Community Solar Can Provide Affordable Solar for Every American Household
In recent years, rooftop solar has provided a cheap and easy way for many to generate their own clean energy. But a disproportionately low-income piece of the American populous will never be able to ‘go solar’ if rooftop solar is their only option.
By partnering with communities to help community solar take off and addressing key access barriers, Solstice is making solar a reality for underserved American communities and pushing the energy industry to addressing inequities that have existed since its inception.