3 Ways Obama’s Solar Initiative Can Help the Affordable Housing Industry

Solar panelsOn July 7th, the Obama Administration announced a new initiative to increase access to solar energy for all Americans, in particular low- and moderate-income communities.

The announcement comes as the solar energy industry experiences remarkable growth; last year the United States brought online as much solar energy every three weeks as it did in all of 2008, and added jobs 10 times faster than the rest of the economy. And since the beginning of 2010, the average cost of a solar electric system has dropped by 50 percent.

We sat down with Mercy Housing’s Sustainability Manager, Caitlin Rood, to talk about what the new initiative means for the affordable housing industry.

What makes this initiative special?

CR: The Obama Administration’s initiative is far-reaching and multi-faceted, so it’s hard to summarize all the aspects that make it special. But this initiative is a big deal in the affordable housing industry. We wants to provide safe, decent homes that are also environmentally friendly, and this initiative specifically addresses low- to moderate-income housing. This emphasis on affordable housing may not be unprecedented, but it certainly is unique.

How can this initiative benefit the affordable housing industry?

CR: This initiative helps the affordable housing industry in three big ways: one, it brings together the affordable housing community around renewable, and particularly solar energy. Before the Administration made this announcement, the President’s Climate Action Plan pledged to increase their solar energy to 100 megawatts. But participating small group of low to moderate income organizations, including Mercy Housing, pledged to 185 megawatts, which is hugely encouraging.

Secondly, if we can reduce the operating expenses of affordable housing, we will have more money and resources to dedicate to more affordable housing. If we can reduce the operating expenses of affordable housing by 10 percent, for example, then maybe we can, in the biggest picture sense, use that toward more affordable housing.

Thirdly, it makes it much, much easier for affordable housing developers to fund solar energy. The affordable housing industry has lagged behind other housing industries in energy efficiency and renewable energy because affordable housing developers are generally not incented to invest in them.

Why?

CR: Because of the cost of implementation and split incentives. Right now, adding solar power to a building requires a lot of capital. We have had to work to find ways around large initial capital investments and have been successful with things like power purchase agreements, energy savings agreements, and sometimes outright purchases when we have the capital available. The split incentives have to do with who pays the bills and thus who benefits financially from the installation of solar power. For the most part, we can only offset the energy that Mercy Housing pays for.

What is Mercy Housing doing currently to “go green”?

CR: We have a pretty robust and healthy dedication to sustainability; for instance, in 2012, we joined Enterprise Community Partners’ call to action to “green” our operations and in 2014, we pledged to reduce our energy and water consumption by 20 percent by 2020 as part of the Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future’s (SAHF’s) “Big Reach” initiative. 2014 also saw us join the Better Buildings Challenge, an initiative to reduce energy use by 20 percent over 10 years. We are working in development, operations, and with the residents nationally to find ways to work together to attain these lofty goals.

Is Mercy Housing considering installing other kinds of renewable energy?

CR: Yes. We’ve talked a lot about PV [photovoltaic solar panels], which is what you think about when you hear the words “solar power.” But we also also plan to install solar thermal in our buildings, and for us that generally means heating hot water. Water goes into it and gets heated up (the sun is heating it, rather than gas or electricity). PV is generating electricity and the solar thermal is heating hot water. The Administration’s focus has been on PV, but they are also including other kinds of renewables, and Mercy Housing is too. So we’ve made a commitment to PV and solar thermal, but we are also considering other renewables like geothermal or wind.

Caitlin Rood 2Caitlin Rood is Mercy Housing’s National Environmental Sustainability Manager, responsible for environmental aspects of all areas of Mercy Housing operations, including development, operations and maintenance, resident services, and office practices. Rood is an environmental engineer with a B.S. and M.S. in civil and environmental engineering, and has more than 18 years of sustainability and energy efficiency experience. She is an accomplished environmental, sustainability, and efficiency professional and project manager with broad experience, including environmental sustainability program development and reporting, energy and water efficiency, environmental management systems, audits, waste management and recycling, environmental assessments, and best practice development and implementation.

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