In what could become a savings for the federal government in utility costs, several non-profits are engineering the installation of solar panels on the rooftops of public and other subsidized housing in certain parts of the country, including California. This effort could also be a boon for the struggling solar power industry which has seen its share of the housing market diminish in recent years.

For states like California with ambitious renewable-energy goals – the law says half of the state’s power by 2025 has to be renewable and 100 percent of energy demands by 2045 are to be met by wind, geothermal, solar or hydro power – these efforts could be a blessing. They also for the first time – and systematically – put a new generation of energy at the fingertips of the poor.

Not long ago, product costs and the prohibitive price of installation meant solar was considered a luxury accessory to housing. With a sharp decline recently in both costs, however – and an improvement in the technology which can virtually reverse home energy consumption – solar has become more attractive.

There are about 4.5 million housing units in the country receiving some kind of housing assistance – roughly 1.3 million are federally owned as public housing.
(An estimated 10 percent of those housing units can be found in California.) Utility payments aren’t generally made on behalf of subsidized tenants unless the costs are considered part of the rent or the tenants occupy public housing. There, up to $200 in utility payments may be made by the federal government.

The federal government, for one, hopes solar energy will lower those costs. Other programs like the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) – which pays out generous subsidies for low-income energy users – would stand to save money, as well, if the solar effort catches on.

Indeed, the solar revolution faces several hurdles in the U.S. before it can succeed. First, installation efforts like the non-profit GRID Alternatives must navigate around increasingly uncertain politics surrounding climate change and energy policy, in general. President Trump is skeptical of global warming and federal policy involving tax credits and other subsidies for solar are at risk.

Secondly, high housing costs are already stretching the budgets of private developers who are clearly in the marketing crosshairs of solar energy companies. Unless the cost of solar power comes way down it’s unlikely new housing producers will be able to afford to put it atop their multifamily buildings.

Finally, it doesn’t yet appear that the solar-power industry has been successful in developing storage capabilities for this alternative energy. This, I’m told, is the main reason solar panels don’t already adorn the countless square feet of commercial rooftops in the country and why individual homebuyers are faced with a hefty solar premium for new homes in California come 2020 and beyond.

However, venture-capital groups like the European Energy Exchange (EEx) think that private-sector energy companies can overcome barriers like these and others that have kept them from expanding into new markets and beyond their current business models. That’s why EEx invests in the private sector. Each year the firm funds between 15 and 20 companies (up to $1 million each) while maintaining limited technology oversight. To date, EEx has given $22 million to more than 60 companies.

In the meantime, states from New York and Connecticut to Louisiana and Minnesota, which see a future in low-income solar initiatives, press on with their programs and initiatives. For its part, California is aiming to install 50 megawatts of solar power in disadvantaged communities by 2021, through the Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) program and through a multifamily version of the plan called MASH. Further, the state wants to with a new initiative install in multifamily housing 30 megawatts of power each year for the next 10.

The uncertainty of government funding is sure to affect these efforts. But, with the prospect of saving money, the private sector doing the heavy lifting and the renewable-energy goals for California already mapped out – and with costs coming down – the efforts are probably worth it. We’ll see.