First of its kind solar program brings bill relief for Southern families
For Nicole Lee, expanding her business to include solar installations was about more than saving families money — she’s creating good paying career opportunities for neighbors who may need a second chance.
“I think that is a big part of my role,” Lee said. “I want to create a career, something that you can move in life with, you can take somewhere else, and you can continue building on.”
Lee, Founder and CEO of Be Smart Home Solutions in Savannah, Ga. previously did energy audits and weatherization for communities with lower income residents in Georgia and South Carolina. She was able to create some savings for her customers, but residents needed more help lowering rising energy bills. Lee is now one of three solar installers for a new solar panel lease pilot program in Georgia that will make cost saving, renewable energy accessible to homeowners who need it most, and expand solar jobs across the state.
“I think Georgia BRIGHT levels the playing field for low-income families,” Lee said. “Families aren’t looking to spend their lives struggling to pay household bills. Solar provides an opportunity, so families are not trying to figure out which bill to pay each month.”
Georgia BRIGHT, (Building Renewables & Investing for Green, Healthy, Thriving Communities) aims to expand solar power to Southerners who may not have access to traditional solar programs because of the high up-front cost, poor credit, or high interest rates. This first of its kind solar lease program is run by Capital Good Fund, a nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution. Homeowners pay nothing up front and receive energy savings on day one because of Inflation Reduction Act nonprofit tax credits, grants, and other financial support, including a $1 million grant from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.
It’s been clear from the first time we spoke to governments, nonprofits, and community groups throughout Georgia that the state has a hunger for a program like this. It’s so inspiring to pilot here, knowing that there is tremendous room to grow within the state and beyond.Andy Posner, Capital Good Fund Founder and CEO
In September, the pilot project began signing up more than 200 households that make less than $100,000 a year across the state. Capital Good Fund owns and maintains the solar panels over a 25-year lease term, with an option to buy your panels after seven years at approximately 65% of the original system price. The average family stands to save 20% on energy costs a month.
Solar, battery, and energy efficiency programs are cost effective ways to help control rising energy bills. In Georgia nearly 1.4 million households use more than 6 percent of their income on energy costs, and about one third spend more than 10 percent – a level considered “energy poverty.” The median U.S. household uses about 3 percent of their income on energy.
“This program is a gamechanger for Georgia families struggling to pay rising energy bills,” said Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Jennifer Whitfield. “If we can make cost-saving solar work for people in a state like Georgia, there is hope for households who need this type of relief across the South.”
Lowering energy bills and building careers
Seth Gunning, CEO of Sunpath Solar in Atlanta, explained that BRIGHT creates a pathway to solar that many families with limited incomes don’t have. “People don’t have access to tens of thousands of dollars to get monthly savings on their electricity bills,” he said.
Roji Aldashi and Kaveh Kamooneh started their second careers in the solar energy to address the climate crisis. They founded Better Tomorrow Solar in 2018 and offer solar panel installations and battery storage in metro Atlanta and Charlotte, NC.
“Normally, no one in the lower to moderate income community would even consider solar. It’s great to have a program like this to offer energy savings to the communities who need it most,” Aldashi said.
All three Georgia BRIGHT installers are also committed to training and career development in an emerging industry that is months away from a supercharge of federal funding.
Federal solar grants promise a BRIGHT future
This fall, the Environmental Protection Agency received applications for its Solar for All grant program. Solar for All will award $7 billion in grants to fund rooftop solar projects benefiting communities with lower incomes and providing workforce development. Part of the historic federal climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, these funds have the potential to double the number of rooftop solar customers and will target a minimum monthly savings of 20% of the average local utility bill. Awards will be announced spring 2024.
“The Georgia BRIGHT program is just a preview of the transformative power of Solar for All grant funding,” Whitfield said. “We’ll be able to prove that solar is not only resilient and cost saving, but economically viable here in the South.”
Posner said Solar for All funding is a critical part of expanding Georgia BRIGHT from pilot to primetime. Federal grant funding is the key to expanding the program with the promise of day one savings in a state like Georgia that does not have market stimulating policies like net-metering. He hopes to serve about 8,000 households over the next five years. Ten other states have asked Capital Good Fund to bring the BRIGHT program to their communities.
“The truth is that the BRIGHT program gives me hope for the future,” Posner said. “It is an example of how we can address the climate crisis, inequality, air pollution, and the need for economic development at the same time.”