EDA Response to the Release of the Report on Low-Income Participation in Shared Solar

On Monday, the New York State Department of Public Service Staff released a long-awaited report on how the state should facilitate participation of low-income people in the opportunity of shared renewable energy.  The report was expected to make recommendations on a path forward to ensure that low-income people would benefit from the state’s shared renewable energy policy.  The proceedings were developed in order to create opportunities for renters, other households, and businesses who cannot afford or access solar to participate in the solar economy. Instead, the report provided yesterday summarily dismissed the collaborative work and recommendations of dozens of organizations and businesses who the Staff had convened.

When the community shared renewables policy was enacted in July 2015, Governor Cuomo said it would ensure that “all New Yorkers, regardless of their zip code or income, have the opportunity to access clean and affordable power.”

But major barriers continue to exist for low-income people who want to take advantage of shared solar and who could benefit from lower bills, job opportunities, and a cleaner environment offered by shared solar development. These barriers include lack of access to capital for upfront costs, difficulty getting credit, predatory practices by energy companies, and low levels of state investment from funds that are set aside to help residents and businesses take advantage of renewable energy.

The Public Service Commission recognized many of these barriers when it approved the shared renewables policy, which led to the creation of a collaborative effort for stakeholders to share ideas and recommendations for overcoming them.

Members of the Collaborative worked throughout the fall 2015 to create a lengthy document packed with recommendations and innovative approaches to enable low-income participation in shared solar projects, including ideas to help low-income people become actual member/owners of solar projects.

Some ideas included in the document are:

  • The creation of state incentives specifically to encourage low-income participation in shared solar, paid for from clean energy funds that all consumers contribute to but that low-income households to date have had difficulty accessing.
  • The use of cooperative ownership models that are working to provide low-income shared solar access in other states.
  • New York Green Bank credit support for low-income participation in order to reduce risk and lower financing costs for projects serving low-income households.
  • Technical assistance and grants to community organizations and non-profits to support innovative shared solar project models.
  • Strong consumer projections to provide confidence in the shared solar product among low-income communities that have traditionally been the victims of energy schemes in the past.

Despite the wealth of ideas provided by the participants in the Collaborative, the Staff submitted a report to the Commission stating: “Although the Collaborative spent a great deal of time and effort investigating the barriers to low-income customer participation in CDG projects, workable solutions have not arisen that would overcome those barriers.”

No explanation was provided for why the ideas provided by the Collaborative were not workable. The Staff went on to recommend that the Collaborative be “suspended” and that instead utility ownership of shared renewable energy projects be explored as a solution going forward.

In response to the disrespect shown to the participants of the Collaborative by the Department of Public Service Staff, the New York State Energy Democracy Alliance (EDA) released the following statement:

“Many EDA members participated in this collaborative in good faith, spending countless hours in meetings to hash out ideas, provide research, and elevate the needs of low-income households in this process. Though we know there was more work to do to fine-tune the recommendations, provide additional research, and develop consensus for ways forward, we are shocked by the filing from the Department of Public Service Staff, which essentially dismisses all of the progress that was made and disbands the effort with no real explanation to those who participated.

“We are deeply concerned about the meaning of this action. We were expecting a plan to get New York on a path of equitable access and participation in shared solar energy for all New Yorkers. Instead we got months of delay and inaction culminating in a rejection of the variety of options and ways forward identified by the participating community-based organizations, consumer advocates, utilities, clean energy companies and finance experts participating in this process. The result of this will be that low-income New Yorkers will continue to be shut out of shared solar opportunities for the foreseeable future.

“Many of the recommendations provided by stakeholders in this process would have begun to reverse inequities inherent in our current energy system and energy policy by providing low-income New Yorkers a share of their own funds that have been contributed for state clean energy programs, and by providing pathways to more affordable energy and even ownership of renewable energy assets. We are beyond disappointed that these ideas were so summarily disregarded.

“New York will not meet its energy goals without addressing the systemic inequities in our current economic and energy systems. With at least 40% of the population in the state being low or moderate income, it is essential that energy policy in New York be designed with the needs of those households as central, not as an afterthought. Strong action and interventions by New York’s energy regulators, NYSERDA, and the Governor are necessary at this time to break down the barriers to renewable energy access and to ensure that low-income people who want to participate in solar are provided the same opportunities as everyone else to build wealth and ownership in New York’s clean energy economy.”

EDA to PSC: It’s past time to reveal your plans for opening shared renewable power to all

New York State Energy Democracy Alliance issues call to action to make clean energy more accessible to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers

The New York State Energy Democracy Alliance is calling on the Public Service Commission (PSC) to release its long-awaited report on making shared solar energy accessible to all New Yorkers. The report, which is eight months late and has been delayed twice so far, is now supposed to be released Aug. 15.

The Alliance hopes the PSC will – as Gov. Andrew Cuomo put it when he announced the Shared Renewables initiative – ensure that “all New Yorkers, regardless of their zip code or income, have the opportunity to access clean and affordable power.”

New York’s pioneering Shared Renewables initiative was enacted by the PSC in July 2015 to allow communities to join together to build collective renewable energy projects – and to enjoy the health and economic benefits that flow from clean power.

“Traditionally, rooftop solar hasn’t been an option if you don’t own your own roof,” said Claude Copeland of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. “Shared solar lets renters, churches, schools, businesses and others band together to create renewable energy projects in their own communities. We are eager to see the PSC’s plans for encouraging access to clean, affordable, healthy energy generation – and the local jobs renewable energy creates – in all kinds of neighborhoods, all over the state.”

The Shared Renewables initiative presents a great opportunity for all New Yorkers to benefit from affordable, renewable power, but in the year since the PSC approved community renewables, the program has failed to match the strong community demand for solar.

Renewable energy should not be reserved only for homeowners or big business. Everyone should benefit, especially low- and moderate-income people and communities of color. People who often bear the brunt of energy insecurity, environmental injustice, and are working hard to make ends meet, can share in the benefits of renewable power – if the initiative doesn’t lock them out. The PSC’s report is supposed to outline plans for removing barriers blocking households and communities who want solar, but lack the capital or property ownership to participate.

“ROCSPOT hopes the PSC empowers our energy ecosystem to ensure community-owned renewable energy generators go from rare to commonplace,” said Dr. Susan Spencer, CEO of ROCSPOT; an organization focused on renewable energy in Rochester and the surrounding Finger Lakes Region. “There are critical regulatory rule changes which could make meaningful differences for many New York State residents. Engaging people in every part of the state, of every socioeconomic status, is the only way the governor’s call for 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 can become reality.”

The New York State Energy Democracy Alliance – made up of community-based organizations, grassroots groups, and others working to advance a just and participatory transition to a resilient, localized, and democratically controlled clean energy economy in the state – hopes the PSC will:

  • Replace the former, but temporary, requirement that every community renewable project have 20 percent low-income participation with a commitment that across the state, at least 20 percent of those who participate in shared solar will be low income. This will create greater flexibility for projects of all kinds, and create a goal for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to reach with low-income solar incentives.
  • Provide clarity for New York’s “net-metering” policy so that those investing in solar and committing to building or buying into projects have certainty as to what the value of the solar electricity generated by their panels will be. The state’s “net-metering” policy is currently in a state of flux that is discouraging new projects.
  • Create incentives specifically to help low-income people and communities participate in shared renewable energy projects. These incentives should be designed to ensure the state meets a goal of 20 percent participation of low-income people in shared solar statewide, and should also ensure that participation will be spread evenly across the state so that people in all regions benefit.
  • Provide technical assistance and grants for community groups and local governments that wish to develop not-for-profit, cooperative, or publicly owned shared renewable energy projects serving low- and moderate-income New Yorkers.

About the New York State Energy Democracy Alliance

The New York State Energy Democracy Alliance is a collaboration of community-based organizations, grassroots groups, and policy experts working together to move our state toward a renewable, equitable, accountable and local energy system. Our current focus is on building public participation in the historic overhaul of state energy policy that Gov. Cuomo, the PSC, and NYSERDA are pursuing, in order to ensure that all New Yorkers—including low-and moderate-income communities of color— can be part of the process, and benefit from it.

Current members include:

Affordable Housing Partnership Homeownership Center
Alliance for a Green Economy (AGREE)
Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition
Catskill Mountainkeeper
Center for Social Inclusion
Citizen Action of New York
Citizens’ Environmental Coalition
Citizens for Local Power
Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES)
Hudson River Sloop Clearwater
Long Island Progressive Coalition
New York Sustainable Business Council
Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson
Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition
People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo
Sane Energy Project
Syracuse United Neighbors (SUN)

New York’s Low-Income People Win Major Improvements in Landmark Energy Affordability Policy

Community Organizations Say Much More Will Be Needed

Albany—On Thursday, May 19, the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) announced its decision in an 18-month-old proceeding. The PSC initiated the proceeding to address the energy affordability and shut off crises in New York State. As of April 2015, low-income people in New York owed $799 million to utilities and suffered almost 300,000 shutoffs in the preceding 12 months. The Order, implemented by a 3-1 vote, created the first uniform program for energy affordability for low-income consumers in New York State.

The proposal adopted was a much-improved version of an initial proposal from June 2015. The initial proposal process was greeted by criticism from low-income community organizations and advocates in the Energy Democracy Alliance, who demanded greater participation in the process. The Energy Democracy Alliance is made up of community-based organizations and grassroots groups who work to advance a just and participatory transition to a resilient, localized, and democratically controlled clean energy economy in New York State. The Energy Democracy Alliance worked with 34 organizations and elected officials across New York, including environmental, social justice, and low-income advocates, to pressure the PSC to improve the process and the ultimate outcome.

After speaking out and securing a round of public hearings, these groups mobilized hundreds of low-income consumers and community representatives to testify in favor of expanded funding and eligibility to address the shutoff and debt crises, the inclusion of energy efficiency, and a more participatory process to engage stakeholders. The vast majority of the public comments filed online, and the dozens of comments made at hearings, were in favor of greater affordability programs to meet people’s needs.

As a result of this grassroots response, the proposal was modified to immediately increase benefits by $69 million, for a total of $248 million. Eligibility was expanded by 550,000 people, to include a total of 1.65 million households. The Commission further agreed with comments submitted by Energy Democracy Alliance organizations that energy efficiency and access to low-cost renewable energy were key to improving long-term energy affordability for low-income people:

“Greater access and support for low income and underserved communities to [distributed energy resources] is the best way to narrow the affordability gap that needs to be filled with direct financial assistance for customers with low incomes,” wrote the Commission. “Greater access to advanced energy management products to increase efficiency for low income customers will empower those for whom these savings may have the greatest value, as well as allowing the most disadvantaged customers more choice in how they manage and consume energy.”

The Commission ordered the formation of a joint interagency task force designed to further increase enrollment in utility discount programs to all 2.3 million low-income households in New York. The task force will also consider how to integrate energy efficiency and renewable energy programs with energy affordability efforts.

At the Thursday meeting announcing the decision staff from the PSC’s Consumer Advocate’s office described the “enormous amount of input” from low-income people that led them to rewrite the initial proposal.

The Energy Democracy Alliance considers these changes an important step toward addressing the suffering and excruciating choices that high energy bills cause in low-income communities across New York. The Alliance praises the Commission for making major improvements to the low-income discount program based on the response from low-income people and looks forward to even bolder action by the Governor and Public Service Commission that will still be needed to end the affordability crisis.

The Energy Democracy Alliance points to the ongoing investigation of Central Hudson Gas & Electric for violating customers’ rights, shutting people off illegally, and racially discriminating against people of color as an example of why it needs to stay vigilant and how much work is still to be done.

Claude Copeland, a board member with Energy Democracy Alliance member group Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, emphasized that the end of the affordability crisis will be reached only when the low-income people actually experiencing it and the organizations that represent them say so. “The Governor and Public Service Commission have the authority to make the decisions, but we are an authority on the needs and experiences of our communities and the local models for energy democracy that serve them.”

Gwen Chaffin, Community Organizer with Syracuse United Neighbors, a member organization of the Energy Democracy Alliance said: “The Governor and PSC have framed this as ‘bold action,’ and this proposal opens up opportunities for addressing the crisis facing working-class communities and communities of color. The Energy Democracy Alliance will be watching closely to make sure that every one of New York’s 2.3 million low-income households is given a real opportunity to enroll for discounts and that the discounts are large enough to achieve affordability. We will continue to participate and to hold policy-makers’ feet to the fire on these life-and-death decisions.”

Spencer Resnick, an organizer for Energy Democracy Alliance member group Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, said: “This is a victory for the people who took time out of their lives to fight for a program that they need. But it hasn’t solved the crisis, and the voices and input of working-class communities will need to be central to any solution. This is the first in a string of decisions that impact our members, and we expect the Commission to continue to engage them.”

Clarke Gocker, Director of Policy and Strategy at PUSH Buffalo, said: “This decision is a step in the right direction. In the midst of historic transformations to our energy system, low-income New Yorkers cannot be marginalized by a top-down reform agenda and must be meaningfully included in decision-making processes that directly impact the economic stability and environmental health of their homes and communities. A better outcome was reached in this proceeding because low-income New Yorkers and the Energy Democracy Alliance showed up and demanded a seat at the table. We look forward to working with the new low-income energy task force and the PSC to find equitable solutions that address the root causes of the affordability crisis, including access to energy efficiency and renewable energy and freedom from racially discriminatory shut-off practices by utility companies.”

For a full summary of the Energy Democracy Alliances activities in this case, click here.

To read the May 19 Order from the Public Service Commission, click here.

Energy Democracy Alliance member organizations:

Affordable Housing Partnership
Alliance for a Green Economy
Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition
Catskill Mountainkeeper
Center for Social Inclusion
Citizen Action
Citizens’ Environmental Coalition
Citizens for Local Power
Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES)
Hudson River Sloop Clearwater
Long Island Progressive Coalition
New York State Sustainable Business Council
Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson
Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition
PUSH Buffalo
Sane Energy Project
Syracuse United Neighbors

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Agnes McCray testimony

Agnes McCray of ARISE testifies at the Syracuse Public hearing.

nobody-leaves-testimony

Members of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson pack the room to testify during the Poughkeepsie Public Hearing.

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Syracuse United Neighbors, Spanish Action League, ARISE, Greater Syracuse Tenants Network, and Alliance for a Green Economy hold a press conference announcing the Syracuse Public Hearing.

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Member of PUSH Buffalo are joined by local elected officials in a demonstration outside the Buffalo Public Hearing.