Expanding low-income solar access in Minnesota
A windfall in federal funds from the Inflation Reduction Act means that Minnesota will have the opportunity to dramatically scale up clean energy for all — and our energy regulators at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) have a critical role to play in driving that momentum.
Minnesota’s two largest investor-owned utilities, Minnesota Power and Xcel Energy, both currently offer programs to help bring rooftop solar within reach for families. While Minnesota Power’s SolarSense Rewards Program and Xcel Energy’s Solar*Rewards Program have been instrumental in expanding solar access for many, the reality is that renewable energy remains elusive to low-wealth households. Systemic roadblocks like high-upfront costs are standing in the way of an equitable clean energy economy. As Minnesota continues to transition away from dirty fossil fuels and toward distributed renewable energy, breaking down those barriers must be a top priority.
Along with our partners at Solar United Neighbors, Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, Cooperative Energy Futures, and Sierra Club, we’re advocating for program modifications that would make Minnesota Power and Xcel Energy’s solar incentive programs fairer and more accessible for low-income families across our state.
Here’s what Minnesota’s low-income solar programs need:
Minnesota ratepayers are already paying into these programs with their monthly utility bills, and utilities have a responsibility to spend their customers’ money wisely and thoughtfully. In 2021, Minnesota Power left $60,000 in unspent funds on the table. This money could have been used to augment the customer incentives budget, rather than the company’s profit margins. In addition, the PUC can and should direct utilities to shift funding toward low-income families, who stand to benefit the most. For example, the Solar*Rewards program currently allocates 10 percent of its funding for low-income applicants. By increasing this carevout to 25 percent, we can ensure that fewer low-income customers are missing out on the opportunity to lower their bills through solar.
Simple and streamlined application processes.
Low-income customers often face time-intensive and confusing barriers to participation in these types of programs, such as lengthy applications or convoluted eligibility criteria. While there has been progress made in breaking down these barriers — for example, Xcel’s Solar*Rewards program has expanded access to certain renters — there is still room for improvement. Granting automatic qualification to customers who already participate in income-qualified programs like Minnesota’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) would be a simple, but meaningful, change.
Ratepayers deserve to know when, how, and by whom their applications are received. This issue is particularly noteworthy for Minnesota Power’s SolarSense program, which currently uses a lottery system to determine participation. If Minnesota Power continues to utilize a lottery, several common-sense changes — for example, standardizing the application opening date, creating a single email address for application submissions, and providing all applications with a confirmation email. Minnesota Power should also establish a public-facing platform to clearly communicate pertinent program information, like number and status of applications.
Rooftop solar is a powerful tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, spurring economic development, and lowering energy bills — but until those benefits are available to all, solar’s full potential will remain out of reach. All ratepayers deserve robust rooftop rebate programs that are clear, transparent, accessible, equity-centered, and forward-looking. We appreciate the opportunity to share our recommendations with the PUC, and hope they’re thoroughly considered.