Environment & Science

LADWP approves program to put solar on low-income homes

A man installs solar panels on a home.
A man installs solar panels on a home.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Rooftops in South Los Angeles, Wilmington and other working-class neighborhoods bypassed by the solar power boom could soon sprout hundreds of new power panels under a pilot project approved Tuesday by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

But those homes are merely a rented parking spot for DWP-owned solar panels.  The power those panels produce would flow into the greater L.A. power grid, not the individual homes. Homeowners chosen for the project would receive payments for leasing their roof space of $360 a year.
    
The proposal is intended to increase the presence of solar power in areas where homeowners have not been able to afford the steep up-front costs to install panels. It's also seen as a way to generate more jobs and increase the percentage of local power from renewable sources.

Here are some details:

How does the rooftop solar plan work?

DWP pays the property owner to lease roof space to hold the panels. The owner gets a check for $360, covering the first year's lease payment, as soon as the panels are installed. After the first year, the owner then gets a $30 credit per month on power bills.

Homeowners would not have to pay an up-front fee or undergo a credit check. They are also not responsible for the operation or maintenance of the panels.
    
Only owner-occupied single-story houses with roofs suitable for solar panels are eligible for the panels.  Homes with the highest priority to receive the panels are in the 53 city zip codes with the least number of solar systems.   

How is this different from a homeowner buying or leasing a rooftop solar system to produce power for their home?

Low-income residents often can't afford the upfront costs for solar panels. So the rooftop community solar pilot project is seen as a first step to fill that affordability gap, bringing solar panels to homeowners  in lower-income areas. A later phase of the project would allow renters to subscribe to purchase power generated by solar panels constructed elsewhere and lock in a lower rate for electricity.

How much energy could the new DWP program produce?

The $12.9 million project  works out to a cost of about $32,250 per home, assuming 400 homes participate, and it would generate 1 megawatt of solar power. That's enough for about 250 typical homes in California. The cost was built into the recently-approved power rate increases passed by the DWP Board of Commissioners and City Council.

DWP Commissioner Christina Noonan questioned the value of spending so much to put solar panels on just a few hundred homes.

"Four hundred homes doesn't come close to addressing the 200,000 eligible customers," Noonan said. "The math doesn't work."

Commissioner William Funderburk defended the program as an important step toward the DWP meeting its stated commitment of producing solar power in all parts of the city.

The rooftop project is part of a larger community solar project that has pledged to produce about 40  megawatts by 2020. To put that into context, on a hot summer day, the DWP produces about 6,500 megawatts of power.

Why is DWP doing this?

The program is meant to expand the benefits of solar energy to lower-income parts of L.A. It also helps the DWP meet a state mandate that it produce half its power via renewable energy sources by 2030.
    
The community solar initiative is supported by two economic justice organizations, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and SCOPE (Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education). Their analysis of DWP's solar incentives program found they typically went to well-off neighborhoods and skipped over less affluent communities like South L.A., Wilmington, Boyle Heights and Pacoima. The groups see community solar as spreading the benefits of solar power to more income levels.
    
They also support its potential to create new jobs in the city. The DWP guidelines for the program say that utility trainees would install the panels overseen by skilled supervisors. The project would create about 15 full-time installation jobs for the first few years.