LA program would let renters plug into the benefits, good karma of solar

A community solar project in Massachusetts. (Photo by Chris Wingard)

LOS ANGELES – It’s been hard for most renters to benefit from solar energy. Rooftops are controlled by landlords, who may not be interested in renewable power.

But that could change.

A new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power program called Shared Solar would let renters buy electricity from solar panels installed on government buildings around the city — no rooftop or landlord permission required.

“The solar market has focused on those that have the capital to buy the solar and install it on their residence or on their commercial properties, and renters don’t have the legal rights to do that, or the capital,” said Allison Mannos with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

And because Los Angeles is a city of renters — 63 percent of housing units are rented while just 37 percent are owner-occupied — that means a ton of people have been shut out of the good karma and long-term savings that come with solar power.

It’s not just renter equity; low-income Angelenos have also been shut out, according to Jason Rondeau, manager of strategic development and programs for LA Water and Power. He said the vast majority of solar projects have been installed in higher income areas, such as West LA and parts of the San Fernando Valley.

The Shared Solar program is designed to close that gap by prioritizing low-income Angelenos and renters.

Also, LA Power and Water has a goal of getting 55 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025, and this program will help get the utility closer.

Shared Solar would be available to 13,000 customers beginning in January 2019, but it first must pass the City Council.

So-called “community solar” projects also exist in Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts and several other states. The Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Department has held contests to motivate communities to explore such programs.

Source: Department of Energy, Solar Energy Technologies Office

Nine states and Washington, D.C., have enacted policies governing and supporting shared solar projects, according to advocacy group SharedRenewables.org. In at least 10 other states (or parts of states), campaigns are under way to have shared-renewables legislation enacted.

As part of its SunShot initiative, the U.S. Department of Energy also has been looking to boost community solar for some years now, updating its definitive 2010 report on the topic, “A Guide to Community Solar,” in 2012. Further clearing the path, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently introduced a Community Solar Scenario Tool to help communities and developers alike assess the financial viability of potential community projects.

Will it save me money?

Initially, no, but in the long term, yes.

The new solar rate is 1 penny per kilowatt hour more expensive than the current residential rates charged by LA Water and Power. But over time, city water rates will rise, whereas the solar rate will stay the same.

If you don’t make very much money, however, you may be able to qualify for a discounted solar rate. The idea is to make solar cheaper than regular power for low-income Angelenos. But that’s contingent on whether the utility gets state and federal grants to help cover those costs.

Will all my electricity come from solar?

No. You can buy a certain amount of power each month — either 50 or 100 kilowatts — that is guaranteed to come from solar panels. Beyond that, you’re getting the regular mix of power from the grid, and paying the regular rate. But a lot of Water and Power’s regular mix is renewable — 29 percent in 2016.

Solar power will come from two sources: locally and from big solar farms in the desert.

Locally, panels will be installed on city and buildings controlled by the Department of Water and Power. There’s one already going up on a LADWP building in the San Fernando Valley, and the Green Meadows Recreation Center, an LA Recreation and Parks facility in South Los Angeles. Added perk: Electric car chargers will be at each location.

Electricity will also come from big solar farms in the desert because large-scale solar is still more cost effective than from local panels.

How is this different from Green Power?

Green Power is a program where you can choose how much of your electricity comes from renewable sources (including solar, wind, geothermal and hydro) up to 100 percent. The Green Power rate is 3 cents more than the regular electricity rate.

Shared Solar, meanwhile, is entirely solar power. It’s also cheaper than the Green Power rate, and has the potential to save you money over time as Water and Power’s rates rise, unlike Green Power.