On September 11th, 2019, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) introduced the Low-Income Solar Energy Act in order to reduce the household energy burden on low-income households. The Act would expand the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) by increasing and stabilizing congressional funding, and allowing up to a quarter of LIHEAP monies to be used to assist low income households access distributed solar energy.
Established by the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Act in 1981, LIHEAP was created to help low-income households meet the rising costs of household energy. LIHEAP funding is given to states, who then decide how and where to allocate money. Funding, however, has been inconsistent, varying from less than $1 billion in 1999 to a peak of $5.1 billion in 2009. LIHEAP has only provided subsidies to low-income households, and to date has not been used for expanding access to renewable energy.
The Act proposes amendments to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Act that would authorize $6.075 bn in funding to LIHEAP every fiscal year, of which states would now be able to allocate a quarter towards funding for solar projects.
The Act calls on the Department of Energy (DOE) to establish a solar financing program that would provide grants for residential and community solar projects, and provide interest-free Section 8 homeowner’s loans to install and operate solar energy technologies. Notably, the Act would amend the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s rules on housing expense caps, in order to prevent Section 8 tenants from seeing rent increases after utility savings from solar.
In addition, the Act contains provisions to support the equitable expansion of opportunities surrounding solar energy, including calling on DOE to develop a training and support program for potential workers in the solar industry (e.g. solar technicians, inspectors, installers, etc.), and prioritize granting government solar contracts to minority and women-owned businesses.
As policy makers contemplate the path to decarbonizing our economy to avert the worst effects of climate change, there has been increasing concern about the disproportionate effect of both climate change and the costs to be paid to avert it on low-income communities. Observers are concerned that they are burdened with the biggest health and economic impacts of fossil fuel dependence. Further, although transitioning to solar energy can stabilize fluctuating energy costs and decrease long-term spending on home utilities, initial investment in solar panels can be prohibitively expensive for low-income households.
Senator Duckworth was joined by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) as a co-sponsor on the bill. Together, they are two of the three co-founders of the Senate’s first Environmental Justice Caucus, announced on Earth Day 2019. The Bill is also sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) in the Senate. In Senator Duckworth’s press release on September 11th 2019, she stated, “All Americans—regardless of whether they have good credit, own a home, or live in multi-family building—deserve to be able to access solar energy.”
A companion bill was introduced to the House by Congressman A. Donald McEachin (D-VA-04), Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-CA-44), Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA-07), and Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-NM-03).