How to Get Solar Panels Onto More Affordable Apartment Buildings

| 8/17/2016 4:07:00 PM

Tags: solar, affordable housing, environment,

This is a guest post from Laurie Mazur, editor for the Kresge Foundation/Island Press Urban Resilience Project.


Solar power seems like the ultimate no-brainer. Free energy from the sun! And the cost of installing solar panels — like other renewables — has plummeted in recent years. Still, solar power has not yet penetrated one of the markets that needs it the most: affordable multifamily housing.

That could change, thanks to the advent of solar photovoltaic systems with backup battery storage (solar + storage). A new report, “Closing the California Clean Energy Divide,” shows how solar + storage can overcome technical and financial problems that discourage owners of affordable apartments from embracing solar. Coauthored by the California Housing Partnership, Center for Sustainable Energy, and Clean Energy Group, the report says solar + storage systems could nearly eliminate electric bills for owners of affordable apartment buildings in California. And those savings could — with the right policies and strategies — be passed on to tenants.

The first problem solved by solar + storage is the bane of all solar energy systems: night. We expect our electric meters to keep spinning along, even when the sun doesn’t shine. (This is the dreaded “intermittency” that challenges other renewable energy sources as well.) Solar + storage handily defeats this problem, by banking excess energy generated in the daytime to be used after the sun goes down.

In this way, solar + storage tackles another insidious problem: utility demand charges. These are fees that utilities charge commercial customers based on their highest peak power use during a billing period, and such fees can make up half of the electric bill for some apartment buildings. A stand-alone solar system without battery storage might not be able to shrink peak demand — because, for example, demand could still be high on a cloudy day. But solar + storage can reduce overall demand for grid power and lower peak use, thereby helping some building owners avoid demand charges. And adding storage to a solar system isn’t prohibitively expensive; it adds only about a third on top of the cost of stand-alone solar.