Climate Solutions
News | June 12, 2024

Solar funding unlocks transformational opportunities for the South

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded nearly $1 billion in grants across our region to accelerate solar energy access through new leasing and power purchase programs, multifamily installations, workforce development, and more. (iStock)

This May, the U.S. hit a new peak for solar energy, surpassing 5 million solar installations for the first time, five times more than the amount installed in 2016. This statistic is a powerful landmark as the nation transitions to clean energy to combat the climate crisis. Now, thanks to the Biden Administration’s $7 billion Solar for All Grant competition, the South is poised to accelerate that momentum by making solar power affordable and accessible for low-income households. 

On Earth Day, April 22, 2024, EPA awarded nearly $1 billion in grants across our region to accelerate solar uptake through new leasing and power purchase programs, multifamily installations, workforce development and more. 

*Alabama is included in Groundswell’s Southeastern Rural Power Coalition regional award.

The Solar for All grant program provides an opportunity to bypass existing legal and practical barriers to provide broad-scale, equitable solar access. The awards will go towards a range of different solar programs, including direct ownership of rooftop solar, solar leasing and power purchase agreements, and subscription-based community solar.  

With these awards, each state in SELC’s footprint is poised to see a monumental change in its solar infrastructure that will help Southerners clean up climate pollution and cut soaring energy bills, creating a more equitable clean energy transition.

The state of solar in the Southeast

In little less than a decade, solar capacity in our region has doubled. In 2018, roughly 10,000 megawatts of solar power were installed or committed to be installed in the South. A single megawatt of solar capacity generates the same amount of electricity in a year as 110 southern households consume each year on average. By the end of 2023, our region had over 23,000 MW of solar capacity installed, with North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia in the top 10 states nationally for solar capacity.  

Learn more about what’s in a megawatt.

Despite solar’s track record of success in the sunny South, many residents lack access to solar. Many low-income households cannot afford the up-front cost of rooftop solar. For these households, community (or shared) solar allows customers to receive credit on their electricity bills for their share of the power from a local solar facility shared by multiple community subscribers. But community solar is available to fewer than half of all electricity customers across our states. Most of these existing community solar programs are premium products, meaning they don’t provide customers with real savings. 

Unfortunately, many utilities continue to create roadblocks that make it harder — not easier — for households and communities to go solar.

Gudrun Thompson, Leader of SELC’s Energy Program

Punitive policies like high monthly fees make transitioning to solar unnecessarily costly for many customers, and some state and utility policies don’t provide fair compensation to rooftop solar customers for the electricity they export to the grid. 

The average monthly energy bill in Tennessee is more than $130. (Bill Sublette)

These barriers to equitable solar access are a part of why Solar for All is such a historic opportunity. The grant program brings in new partners and expands access to the most vulnerable communities, whose road to solar adoption has been steep in Southern states. 

Solar for All presents a major opportunity to both expand rooftop solar in our region and to create community solar programs that provide cost savings to subscribers. Awarded grants require that participants save at least 20 percent on their bills. In a state like Tennessee, where the average monthly energy bill is $130.98, or in Georgia, where one-third of households spend more than 10 percent of their income on energy costs, these programs would mean a huge relief for low-income households grappling with high energy burdens.  

Unlocking transformational opportunities 

In Georgia, the EPA awarded $156 million to a nonprofit financial lender, Capital Good Fund. Last spring, SELC attorneys and program staff supported Capital Good Fund when it created a first-of-a-kind low-income leasing program for rooftop solar in Georgia. We also supported the Capital Good Fund and a coalition of local governments to develop a Solar for All application.  

Capital Good Fund, a nonprofit community development institution, was awarded $156 million in Solar for All funding to develop cost-saving solar programs across Georgia. This funding will help significantly expand Capital Good Fund’s cost-saving solar lease program, Georgia BRIGHT, which aims to expand solar power to Southerners who may not have access to traditional solar programs because of high up-front costs, poor credit, or high interest rates. Homeowners pay nothing upfront and receive energy savings on day one. Solar for All funding will expand Georgia BRIGHT from a pilot program serving about 200 households and nonprofits up to 8,000 households over the next five years.

In South Carolina, SELC offered program design ideas and support for the State Office of Resilience SFA application, which netted a $124 million award. Their approach embeds energy efficiency and solar as a core resilience strategy, establishes an innovation fund to launch community resilience hubs and solar canopies, provides solar access for multifamily affordable housing, and expands solar workforce training.  

In Tennessee, where EPA awarded $156 million to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, SELC participated in stakeholder meetings and advocated for TVA to allow local power companies to develop projects outside the five percent cap on local generation in their power contracts. TDEC is operating a statewide program to provide financial assistance for residential rooftop and residential-serving community solar infrastructure, storage, and associated enabling upgrades in conjunction with preexisting, complementary programs.  

A solar installer with one of three companies chosen for a new solar panel lease pilot program in Georgia. (Be Smart Home Solutions)

In North Carolina, the North Carolina SFA Coalition will launch a statewide EnergizeNC program to transform solar growth in the state through the installation of rooftop solar at low-income single-family and multifamily units across North Carolina, including expanding community solar access. Financial incentive programs will provide meaningful household energy savings for rooftop solar (and, in limited cases, storage) installation in single-family homes; behind-the-meter solar installation at multifamily housing owned and operated by nonprofit and public organizations, and community solar pilot programs. SELC provided technical assistance and policy support to the team of applicants led by the Department of Environmental Quality, which yielded a $156 million award. 

In Virginia, which received $156 million, we led a coalition of partners in submitting comments to the Virginia Department of Energy with program recommendations to ensure a deep impact for low-income Virginians. The VDE’s program will address existing market barriers to solar development by reducing upfront costs, enabling broader access to leasing and power purchase agreements, increasing access to financing for low-income homeowners, removing barriers to interconnection, and providing energy and building upgrades necessary to support these projects. Almost 50 percent of Virginia households will be able to benefit from the program. 

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin signed legislation that will create a shared solar program for Appalachian Power customers and expand Dominion Energy’s existing program. SB 255 from Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell and HB 108 from Delegate Rip Sullivan Jr., D-Fairfax County created a 50-megawatt shared solar program available to Appalachian Power customers.

The legislation also incentivizes projects on agricultural facilities, rooftops, brownfields, landfills, etc., and requires at least 10 percent savings for low-income qualified customers. The program initiated in 2022 was created for Dominion Energy customers whose roofs were unsuitable to hold panels or who reside on lots that don’t garner enough sunlight to produce electricity.

Finally, SELC supported the application submitted by Groundswell’s Southeastern Rural Power Solar for All Coalition, whose $156 million award will expand solar access to income-qualified renters and homeowners served by municipal electric utilities and residential electric cooperatives in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina

A brighter future  

This historic Solar for All opportunity will both expand access to rooftop solar in our region and accelerate community solar programs that provide cost savings to subscribers. States have five years to deploy all of their grant funds. SELC will engage with leaders and projects in each state to maximize the impact of this historic investment to deliver the benefits of solar to all communities. In order for solar to be a real option in every corner of the Southeast, we must ensure that it is affordable and accessible to everyone.