Solar project to reduce bills for low-income households

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Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, December 2016
Newton will cut utility bills for low-income households by using credits generated by a solar project on city property and funneling them to 1,250 eligible households, while also slightly trimming the city’s electricity costs.
City officials worked with the utility Eversource and the anti-poverty and community development nonprofit Action for Boston Community Development to make the initiative a reality. Those involved believe the program may be the first of its kind in the country.
Ameresco of Framingham is building a solar canopy over a Newton Department of Public Works parking lot, with the city paying $101,000 to the company for $163,000 worth of net metering credits. The city will equally distribute those credits to low-income households identified by ABCD, resulting in eligible residents saving $40 to $50 a year on their electric bill, while the city will realize $2,000 in annual savings.
Mayor Setti Warren said the program addresses several critical areas of concern: reducing the city’s carbon footprint and costs to all taxpayers, and addressing income inequality and economic mobility.
The Greater Boston area, he said, has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the country. In Newton, 11 percent of school-age children live below the poverty line, and one in eight households live on less than $25,000 a year.
“We also know that energy is one of the cost drivers that contributes to this issue,” Warren said. “After mortgage principal and interest, energy is the highest cost of home ownership. … The mortgage default rate is 30 percent lower in energy-efficient homes.”
Newton Sustainability Director Andy Savitz suggested that the city could partner with ABCD to find a way to use its solar credits to provide some relief to low-income households. Households that already qualify for discounted rates from Eversource will be eligible for the program.
“We did not want to get into the business of picking and choosing who got the credits,” Savitz said. “We wanted to find an agency that already administers low-income energy assistance. That was ABCD.”
John Wells, ABCD’s vice president of real estate and energy services, said his organization handles federal fuel assistance programs and has a partnership with Massachusetts utilities to run energy efficiency programs for clients eligible for discounted rates.
“We’re essentially in the business of managing these large databases of clients that are income-eligible,” Wells said. “We really hatched the idea together [with the city]. … Our idea was if you’re going to do community solar, spread it to the largest group you can.”
ABCD sent a letter from the mayor to the eligible households seeking permission to obtain their electricity account numbers if they wished to participate.
Eversource spokesman Michael Durand said municipalities with solar facilities typically use Schedule Z, the state-approved form used to allocate renewable energy credits, to match credits with various municipal electric accounts.
“So the reason this is so innovative is we’re using that form and in somewhat the same fashion, only the accounts we’re being given by the city of Newton are resident accounts identified by ABCD as being in need, in terms of household income,” Durand said.
Wells said the initial program provides a small, though not insignificant, savings to households. But he hopes the program will grow and that other cities and towns could follow a similar approach.
“This is truly a new path for this type of thing going forward,” he said. “We believe it’s a fair way of distributing benefits.”
Savitz said any city or town in Massachusetts could replicate the program.
For more information, contact Newton Sustainability Director Andy Savitz at (617) 796-1618.