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First-of-its-kind program to provide free solar installations for low-income homes in 2020

Indianapolis Star logo Indianapolis Star 12/11/2019 London Gibson, Indianapolis Star
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Up to 20 low- and middle-income Indianapolis homes could be running on solar power free of charge by the end of next year with the help of a new city initiative, which is the first of its kind in the Midwest. 

Just months after Indianapolis and Hamilton County formed solar power co-ops to make solar energy more available to homeowners, the city of Indianapolis announced another co-op plan — this time, aimed specifically at providing solar power to financially burdened residents.

Like the co-ops announced this year, the plan is the result of a partnership with Solar United Neighbors, a national nonprofit that establishes similar co-ops and promotes solar power.

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"This program just really allows us to take a step in a more inclusive and equitable direction," said Katie Robinson, director of the city's Office of Sustainability. “We’re aware that there are homeowners in Indianapolis that are experiencing energy burden."

Installing solar panels for a home can cost between $5,000 and $20,000, depending on the home — pushing it out of reach of most low- and middle-income homeowners who already spend a higher proportion of their income on energy.

On the flip side, installing the renewable energy source can help low-income families save a significant amount on energy bills. By some estimates, savings in Indiana can amount to as much as $20,000 in 20-25 years. 

"There’s really a place of passion of how this partnership was started," Robinson said. "It was, making sure we were being thoughtful about these issues."

Indianapolis homeowners with an income at or less than 80% of the area's median household income are eligible for grant funding through this program. A family of two making $51,150 a year or a family of four making  $63,900 would be eligible.

Public information sessions for the initiative will begin early next year, with hope of all installations being completed by the end of 2020. Interested families can sign up online before the May 1 deadline.

The Office of Sustainability has already set aside some funding for the program, but some grants are still pending from foundation partners.

With a goal of $350,000 to adequately support the program providing solar for 20 homes, the city is currently looking for national partners and seeking additional financial support, Robinson said. 

The partnership is part of the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge and the city's newly launched Thrive Indianapolis plan, whose goal is to increase the portion of Indianapolis' energy use from renewable resources to 20 percent by 2025. Currently, this portion is less than 12%.

The new solar co-op will follow two other co-ops formed this year — Solar United Neighbors formed the Hamilton County solar co-op in August and the Indianapolis co-op in April. 

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The co-op is designed to reduce costs for solar installations by buying from contractors in bulk and then selecting from competitive bids from suppliers, said Solar United Neighbors' Indiana program director Zach Schalk, and has seen success in other states.

"We've completed more than 220 of these co-ops at this point," Schalk said. "We bring together neighbors and businesses and nonprofits and the giving community to help educate about solar technology and economics."

Growth in Indiana's solar industry dropped dramatically after 2017, when state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 309, which removed incentives for homeowners to install solar panels.

The Indiana solar industry is still growing, but at a slower rate than neighboring states. A bill was introduced this year to reinstate homeowner incentives, but it didn't find success in the legislature.

Schalk said he views this new co-op as a jumping off point for Indianapolis' solar industry, particularly for financially burdened residents.

"We're really viewing this as a kind of pilot program, a proven concept to see a low-income solar program and what kind of impact it can have in Indianapolis," Schalk said. "Hopefully turning around and being able to design something that will be a little more ambitious beyond 2020."

Contact IndyStar reporter London Gibson at 317-444-6043 or lbgibson@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @londongibson

Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.

IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: First-of-its-kind program to provide free solar installations for low-income homes in 2020

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