Richmond offers free, discounted solar — but will residents bite?

Solar panels at the Richmond Civic Center roof installed in 2009. (Photo courtesy of the City of Richmond)

Solar panels at the Richmond Civic Center roof installed in 2009. (Photo courtesy of the City of Richmond)

Since July, the city has been trying to use more than $400,000 in federal stimulus funds to provide discounted and free solar panels for Richmond homeowners. The initial goal of the R3 program was to install the panels on a hundred homes, but so far only eight people have signed up.

The city is beefing up its outreach program, though, and officials say they believe at least 40 low-income homeowners will choose to have free panels installed by November 2012. The city is also offering solar panel rebates, totaling to an average $4,000-$5,000, to homeowners who don’t meet the income requirements.

Adam Lenz, Richmond’s sustainability coordinator, said the city has other environmental programs for which it can use the Department of Energy grant money — such as a lighting improvement program — but, “We’d prefer as much as possible to get these funds into residents’ hands,” Lenz said.

The city is offering rebates to make the panels free for homeowners whose houses lie within the city’s enterprise zone (generally west of Interstate 80) and whose income is below 80 percent of Contra Costa County’s average median income. For a three-person family, that amount is $59,200.

The funding is available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the Richmond City Council will vote Tuesday whether to open the money up for homeowners to pay, also, for energy-efficiency assessments of their homes.

“I think that people really identify with the whole concept of renewable energy and creating your own energy,” Lenz said. “It’s something that a lot of people are genuinely excited about.”

If a homeowner doesn’t meet the income requirements for a free installation, he or she could pay anywhere between about $15,000 to $60,000 for the installation, minus the rebate, according to Andrew Flores, the director of operations at Ally Electric & Solar Inc., a Richmond company that installs solar panels.

The cost, Flores said, depends on the quality of the solar equipment, the type of roof (installing on slate and concrete roofs is usually more expensive than installing on shingle roofs), the necessary weatherproofing and other factors, such as company overhead. Flores said he believes, with utility rates rising, solar installations will generally pay off tenfold over a 20-25 year period.

Lenz said Richmond needs to spend the grant money by November next year but said the city is only just into its outreach program. Officials have scheduled two community meetings on the project — a general educational meeting on October 12 and another for people who meet the income requirements for free installations on October 19.

The city has been making presentations at neighborhood councils and other community meetings and has also contracted with the nonprofit Solar Richmond to help with outreach, although the nonprofit’s staff was unavailable for an interview Monday afternoon. The contract is not to exceed a cost of $45,000.

So far, only five people have completed applications for the free solar installations. And three homeowners who don’t meet the low-income requirements have also applied for the panels.

But, “We think enrollment numbers will shoot up significantly in October,” Lenz said. He said about 100 people have expressed interest in the free panels.

The city has recently spent other Department of Energy grant money on residential energy efficiency and weatherizing programs.

3 Comments

  1. Esther Alex-Taylor

    My Mom is Richmond Resident and is interested in information regarding the solar panels. Who does she contact?

  2. Don Gosney

    One of the problems here may be in that the applicants need to be “low Income” homeowners.

    Most people meeting the low income criteria can’t afford to own their own home and even those that do may not be able to afford the installation of solar panels—an enterprise that even after rebates is still carries a pretty hefty price tag.

    This is like offering low income rebates to people if they buy Rolls Royce automobiles. There seems to be a disconnect here.

    In this economy, low income households usually put a higher priority on putting food on their tables instead of spending megabucks on a green alternative to PG&E.

    Just a thought.

    Oh, and it might be easier to determine if you qualify if the links on the City’s web site actually worked. The link to determine low income status takes you to a page on the Grid Alternatives site where the message is “Page Not Found”.

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