Solar-Oversight Brings Solar Equality for All


Although it seems that Americans have increasingly polarized opinions about many things, find solace in our tendency to agree on two things:

  1. The income gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots is increasing.
  2. We need more renewable energy (although the majority do not want to pay for it).

However, these two problems often work against each other, as renewable energy projects tend to widen the income gap. Generally speaking, only people and companies that are already successful and have the capital to fund a renewable energy project will benefit from the long-term payback of the project.

Closing the income gap 

Luckily, Solar-Oversight is working in this void to help low-income neighborhoods install solar PV systems. In 2015 you will see their rooftop solar systems on community centers, senior centers, Boys and Girls clubs, and churches. Find a list of their current projects here.

We spoke with Willis White, the founder and developer for Solar-Oversight. Willis wants to make solar installations easy for inner-city residents and organizations. With many years of public policy experience, Willis says that the “devil is in the details.” Solar-Oversight manages these details for their inner-city partners, like senior homes and youth centers, so they can continue doing the work that they do best.

Willis highlights three legs of their program:

  1. Community Education on the benefits of solar
  2. Securing Funding through public/private partnerships
  3. Creating Sustainable Jobs

It is clear that Willis has the ability and patience to educate, as he humorously explains the intricacies of what Solar-Oversight does.

Educating the community

Collaboration begins as Solar-Oversight reaches out to prominent community organizations. They find it particularly helpful to make presentations at festivals and churches. At these presentations, they help community members understand how they can save money on their energy bills given current state and federal incentives, and help the environment at the same time. As Willis says, “We take the Policy to the Street.”

State legislators and public policy advocacy organizations have amassed millions from the Cap and Trade revenues to fund renewable energy efficiency programs that can only be spent in low-income communities. By combining federal tax incentives with California rebates, low-income communities and non-profit organizations can have access to energy efficiency and solar projects at no cost. Solar-Oversight has the “secret sauce” to solarize our low-income communities.

Funding solar projects

Once they have gathered community interest, Solar-Oversight helps the project move forward by securing funding for it. They coordinate rebates, solicit tax-equity investors, and work with HUD incentives. They will work with all of the solar contractors and other stakeholders to assure that the project run smoothly. Solar-Oversight makes the economics work by pooling multiple smaller projects into one larger project. Willis says that they are successful because they know the right questions to ask, in order to line up all the answers for the various stakeholders.

A large part of their work is to harness the financial opportunities of the PACE Program (Property Assessed Clean Energy) and traditional funding sources. This allows non-profit organizations that own their building to install a PV system with no down payment. The system is paid for through the assessed property taxes, and the utility costs are reduced or eliminated over the life of the project. In many homes and non-profit organizations, utility costs represent a 40% burden on annual expenses. If the property is sold, then the PV system is sold with the property, and both the payments and savings are transferred with the property to the next owner.

Sustaining low-income communities with solar

In all of their projects, Solar Oversight promotes the use of local labor for construction. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided job training in low-income neighborhoods for solar installers, yet in most cases solar projects are not concentrated in inner-city communities. Solar contractors do not use local talent from low-income communities to install the PV systems in their own neighborhoods. Solar-Oversight stipulates that the installers use local talent, in cooperation with Rising Sun Energy Center and other solar training programs. Their model will create a pipeline of solar projects that sustain jobs in low-income communities.

The result of all of this work is a cleaner and healthier community, with more employment, and job sustainability. The residents and community centers in low-income neighborhoods will pay less for their energy, with no money down. On the long term, they will not be subject to annual billing increases from the utilities. As Willis and Solar-Oversight would have it, a seriously underserved part of society is supported, while also increasing the use of renewable energy.