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For Low Income Pennsylvanians, Solar Energy Doesn't Shine On All Households

Jon Callas

Most homeowners have heard about solar energy, but few in Pennsylvania are actually taking advantage of the option. Many are aware of the cost-saving potential, however some demographics, especially low-income residents, who can’t afford the more than $20,000 in installation fees, being left out. New state incentives and advocacy from solar energy organizations are hoping to change the narrative for solar-powered homes, making them more accessible.  

Recently, SolarCity, a California-based company of tech-innovator Elon Musk, found its way to the Commonwealth. Installation is free and the electricity bill is paid directly to SolarCity, according to Pittsburgh City Paper reporter Bill O’Driscoll.  He’s written about the company, and believes it could have a real impact in the region, but mostly for middle-to-upper class households.

“The cost of installing solar panels has dropped 70 some percent in the last three years,” said O’Driscoll.

But access to solar energy for low-income residents is tricky. SolarCity and all other installers require that you own the house, which poses a problem, as most low-income folks rent their homes.

It’s the low-income households that would benefit more, however, said PublicSource reporter Andrea Frazier. She explored the topic in a recent article and found that this demographic typically spends a larger portion of their income on electrical utility costs. While ultimately they’d be saving, Frazier said it’s that original cost that’s barring low-income residents from switching.


Some loans are available, but people like Sharon Pillar, President of the Solar Unified Network of Western Pennsylvania (SUNWPA), say they aren’t enough.

“For low-income people, this energy bill is a huge percentage of their income, so providing solar, if you can build that into the building, you’re almost providing free energy for them,” said Pillar.

Pillar pointed out that the biggest roadblock is the lack of ability to invest. Potential solutions could include low-interest loans and access to long-term financing, two  improvements that would spread the financial weight of the initial investment across a wider range of years, thus making it less of a financial burden to make the leap.

Ron Celentano, President of Pennsylvania Solar Energy Industries Association (PASEIA) and Solar PV industry consultant at Celentano Energy Services, suggests rolling solar energy payments into another tax or payment also lessens the burden, and it also marks a longer term investment in solar energy.

“Rolling it into a property tax that stays with the homes makes it more worthwhile [for homeowners,]” Celentano said.

Commercial and industrial legislative initiatives towards clean, solar energy are good, but the legislation that pertains to residential properties is more controversial, said Pillar.

That’s not to say that there’s a complete roadblock for solar energy. There are currently over 8000 solar units in the state, which Celentano believes will continue to increase as homeowners become more aware of their options.

For those who can access the technology, there’s a 30 percent federal tax credit to offset the installment costs. There’s also a handy “online matchmaker,” as O’Driscoll described it, called Solarize Allegheny. It’s a Heinz Endowments project that aims to connect solar energy customers with the company right for them.

Ultimately, Pillar and Celentano expressed that the Clean Power Plan policy, which requires existing power plants cut emissions by a third over 15 years, is necessary in order to make this kind of technology more accessible to all residents. Currently the initiative is in legal limbo in Harrisburg.

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

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