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Sparks

Biden Hands Out $7 Billion to Expand Solar Access

The Solar For All program is the final piece of the $27 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.

Solar panel installation.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The great promise of solar panels — in addition to their being carbon-free — is the democratization of energy. Anyone can produce their own power, typically for less than the going utility rate. The problem is that those who stand to benefit the most from this opportunity haven’t been able to access it.

That pattern could change, however, with Solar for All, a $7 billion program under the Environmental Protection Agency to support solar in low- to moderate-income communities. On Monday, the Biden administration announced it was awarding the funds to 60 state and local governments, tribes, and national and regional nonprofits, at an average grant size of more than $80 million.

The funding will be used to design new programs and bolster existing ones that subsidize the cost of rooftop solar installations, community solar projects and battery storage. During a press call on Friday, the administration said the awardees have committed to deliver at least 20% utility bill savings to the households they serve.

To get a sense of how transformative Solar for All could be, it’s helpful to look at the numbers. According to Department of Energy data, low- to moderate-income households spend an average of 6% of their income on energy, with some paying as much as 30%, whereas households at higher income levels spend an average of just 2%. As much as a quarter of the country reports having struggled to pay electric bills, sacrificing basic needs like food and medicine or keeping their homes at unsafe temperatures because of energy concerns.

The number of these households installing rooftop solar has been increasing steadily year over year, but in 2022, they still made up only about 22% of installations, though they represent about 43% of the population.

The disparity is largely due to the high up-front cost of a solar installation, plus the fact that lower-income Americans are less likely to own their homes. While there’s a federal tax incentive to bring down the cost, low-income households may not have the tax liability to take advantage of it. They also are more likely to live in older homes that require roof repairs, the cost of which are often not covered by incentive programs.

Solar for All represents a potential step change. In at least 25 of the states and territories awarded through the program, there are no pre-existing low-income solar programs. The EPA estimates that the funds will help more than 900,000 households see the benefits of solar. It will also increase resilience in low-income communities during power outages by giving more households access to backup batteries.

Biden and his cabinet are taking a victory lap this week in honor of Earth Day, with a national tour of events and announcements related to the president’s climate and environmental record. In addition to Solar For All, the administration also launched a new web portal for the American Climate Corps on Monday, which lists nearly 2,000 training and job opportunities in fields like solar installation and mangrove restoration.

With this $7 billion heading out the door this summer, Biden will soon have distributed the full $27 billion that Congress allocated to a program called the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund two years ago when it passed the Inflation Reduction Act. The initial $20 billion was awarded in early April to launch a national network of green banks that will provide low-cost loans and other affordable finance options for climate adaptation and mitigation initiatives.

Green
Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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Hurricane aftermath.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

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The Capitol.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

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Cal Fire trucks.
Heatmap Illustration/Screenshot/KUSI-TV

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