Community groups put funding together to push solar into low-income communities

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Molly Peterson/KPCC

Alan Wlliamson, a solar installation trainer and expert with GRID Alternatives, brings young students from East Los Angeles to install PV panels on rooftops. He also brings his knowledge, and his tools.

As governments strain to increase the use of renewable energy, some neighborhood groups are using federal grants to push solar panels into poor areas. Such a project has sprouted in East Los Angeles.

A breeze tickles chimes in front of a mint green house. Alongside it, a guy in green overalls and a yellow hard hat rides herd over some teenagers. Alan Williamson is showing students from the charter school La Causa how to install rooftop solar panels and connect them to the electrical grid.

When Williamson and these students finish the day's work, panels on this East L.A. house will generate 85 percent of one family's energy use.

Soy Maria Luz Salazar, viva en este de Los Angeles, the woman on the porch says. Salazar cradles a baby; she cares for other kids here during the day. She, her mother and her sister share the rent.

Ramon Mendez from the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners asks how solar power will lower her electric bill. Veinte dolares. Mendez finishes the translation: "She says that her payment would be $20 a month, so saving 40-some dollars a month," he explains.

Mendez’s organization calls this a "green grant" program. With federal money, it and similar groups develop neighborhood-based solar installation jobs, retrofit old houses and educate low-income homeowners like Salazar about energy and its efficient use. "Besides the fact that the solar panels reduce her energy cost, they've actually trained her how to save energy, like unplug the cellular phone chargers at night because they're just wasting energy," Mendez says, translating Salazar's comments.

Federal housing money has bought solar retrofits for 20 houses in L.A. County's unincorporated areas this year. The $3 billion California Solar Initiative also underwrites rooftop solar panels for low-income homeowners – the state's distributed about 2 percent of the $108 million set aside for that purpose. But though her income is low, Salazar doesn't qualify: her property does not have a covenant restricting the home's ownership to low-income owners, a key qualifying component for the state's rebate.

Advocates for low-income communities like the Greenlining Institute's Sam Kang say these projects must move faster and reach further than they do now. "Those who seem to take most advantage of solar panels and all the government subsidies that are out there are ones that could already afford to pay their bills in the first place – people who are fairly well off and who are using the solar panels to heat pools and jacuzzis."

The Greenlining Institute looked at the state of the solar industry in California's low-income communities – you can read the report here.

Enterprise's Ramon Mendez says that working with local leaders sells neighborhoods on the idea, and builds trust. "Anybody coming in knocking at your door saying we have something free to give you – immediately we're met with doors slamming in your face," Mendez says. In this part of east Los Angeles, he says, people going door to door have posed as government agents and defrauded homeowners. A knock on the door isn't always friendly. "But we find working with community organizations, we're able to have a connection, and you get one neighbor, you see the panels going up, and it becomes the hottest trend in the neighborhood," Mendez emphasizes.

L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina worked to bring money for this project to East L.A. She says poor neighborhoods need more government subsidies and better access to the opportunities renewable energy presents. "Expanding the program wouldn't hurt because we only qualify about 20 homes a year," she says. "And I'm sure there are many more we could do more outreach with, but there's just not enough funding for it as yet."

Federal housing officials still see value in the project at its current size. The government will allocate money for 20 more planned solar retrofit projects in East Los Angeles next year.

UPDATE: This story was updated after publication to reflect a correct spelling for Maria Luz Salazar's name and to report correctly that she is a homeowner, not a renter.

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