DC’s Solar For All Cuts Electric Bills in Half for 4,000 Residents — and Keeps Growing
The top floor of the parking structure at Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in D.C. is now covered with a canopy of 2,500 solar panels that will produce enough power to cut electric bills in half for 325 low-income families across the city. The estimated savings for each family is about $500 a year, or a total of $2.4 million over 15 years, according to figures from the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU).
The 1.15-MW canopy is the latest addition to D.C.’s Solar For All program, which was rolled out in 2018 with the ambitious target of installing enough solar across the nation’s capital to similarly cut the electric bills of 100,000 low- and moderate-income residents. To date, the program has put panels on the roofs of 200 low-income single-family homes and launched 130 community renewable energy facilities (CREFs) like the Children’s National project, saving hundreds of dollars a year for 4,000 D.C. households.
Speaking at a live, socially distanced ribbon cutting for the project on Monday, DCSEU Director Ted Trabue said the program expects to cut energy bills in half for another 2,000 D.C. residents this year.
“This is one of the projects I actually envisioned when I passed Solar For All, that we would be able to bring renewable energy benefits to everyone in the community,” said D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who authored the legislation establishing the program. “We don’t care what your income is. You’re entitled to have energy savings; you’re entitled to have energy available to you, just like anybody else.”
The Children’s National project is part of a massive redevelopment effort currently underway on the campus of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Abrams Hall, an affordable senior housing project on the campus — now called The Parks at Walter Reed — also has a 473-kW rooftop CREF, which is cutting electric bills for 135 D.C. households.
From planning to ribbon cutting, the parking lot canopy took more than three years to complete, said Mike Healy, CEO of New Columbia Solar, a local developer that has built a number of Solar For All projects. Beyond COVID-related delays, construction of the installation presented unusual engineering challenges. The specialized crane used to install the canopy frame was heavier than the load-bearing capacity of the decades-old parking structure, Healy said.
“We had to do a ton of engineering,” he said. “We put in these train tracks, essentially, so that the weight of the crane was split up appropriately and shifted across the parking deck.”
Solely dedicated to pediatric research, Children’s National is not getting any power from the project but does receive leasing fees from New Columbia, which owns and will operate the project.
The company has, in many ways, grown up with Solar For All. Started in 2016, it has transformed itself from a local installer with three employees to a full-fledged developer with about 65 employees today. About 40% of its projects are with Solar For All, Healy said, including a 700-kW installation that will begin construction this summer at the city’s Rock Creek Tennis Center.
An Innovative Financing Model
Solar For All was born out of D.C.’s long history of tense relations between the city’s upper middle-class neighborhoods — mostly white — and its LMI communities, mostly African American.
Access to solar for low-income communities has been a flashpoint for the solar industry almost since its inception, with critics often saying residential rooftop projects are affordable only for a well heeled, mostly white demographic. Community solar projects, which provide power to a group of customers, emerged as an alternative for those who, for a variety of reasons, might not want or be able to put panels on their roofs, for example, low-income apartment dwellers.
CREFs are D.C.’s version of community solar, based on Solar For All’s innovative financing model, which leverages the city’s unregulated retail electricity market, aggressive decarbonization goals and a robust market for solar renewable energy credits (SRECs). The D.C. City Council made headlines back in 2018 when it raised the city’s renewable portfolio standard to 100% by 2032 — up from an original goal of 20% by 2020 passed in 2005 — with 10% of that power coming from solar installed within its compact, densely populated 68 square miles.
The RPS also requires electricity retailers to provide a certain percentage of their power — currently 2.5% — from solar located in the city or pay hefty “alternative compliance” fees that are used to fund Solar For All. High SREC prices — currently $415/MWh — allow the projects to pencil out for local developers, such as New Columbia.
The current budget for the program is about $10 million per year, Trabue said in a separate interview with NetZero Insider. Whether CREFs or single-family home installations, residents do not own solar projects but receive credits on their monthly power bills, Trabue said.
In setting up the program, Tommy Wells, director of the city’s Department of Energy and Environment, went with a market-based approach.
“What we did was we put it out to bid,” Wells recalled during a 2020 webinar on the program. “We said to the solar developers, to the community, whoever wanted to bid on it: ‘This is what you have to achieve; you have to show us how you are going to deploy solar.’ We ended up with nine successful bidders, and they all came up with creative ways to provide the equivalent of half a year’s power bill to residents.”
For example, one of the first Solar For All projects was a CREF installed vertically on the south side of a downtown office building; it cut bills for 47 households. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, another project put panels on the rooftops of five buildings at George Washington University, with income from the installations split three ways. Half has gone to cutting electricity bills for low-income households; another 15% into an emergency fund to help area residents at risk of power shutoffs; and the rest to local nonprofits working with the city’s homeless population.
D.C. also has a separately funded workforce development program, called Solar Works, which trains low-income youth for jobs in the industry. The program is run by low-income installer GRID Alternatives, with students getting hands-on experience installing rooftop solar on low-income single-family homes in the city.
The success of Solar For All notwithstanding, whether the program and its unique financing are replicable is an open question. Even without the income stream from D.C.’s SRECs, Trabue believes other cities could develop their own financing mechanisms, although not a “one-for-one replication.”
“Let’s say our SRECs weren’t worth what they are,” he said. “Could we then put in a higher dollar amount per kilowatt to still support the program? Of course, we could. Would people find that politically palatable or acceptable? All states look at it differently.”