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The Potential Cost Savings in Solar

Solar Energy Affordable Housing

By Les Shaver

Solar energy has potential, but there are hurdles.

When affordable housing operators want to increase income, there are not many choices. 

“Affordable housing has very little capacity to raise rent,” Darien Crimmin, Vice President of WinnCo Development said Bisnow’s Greater D.C. Solar and Sustainability Summit. “But you can control operating expenses through energy efficiency and solar, save 10- to 15-percent or more.”

A key reason to install solar photovoltaic (PV) is to lower energy usage from fossil-based fuels and to lower operating costs for the property. Many housing operators have tackled the easy energy fixes, such as installing low-flow toilets and LED light bulbs, but solar is a bigger investment.

“Energy efficiency helps us as a business,” says Martin Mellet, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Jubilee Housing. “It saves costs and for affordable housing providers – the margins are always thin.”

WinnCo and Jubilee are committed to sustainability. And not just because of the cost savings and a commitment to the environment. 

With multiple developers competing for subsidies to help build affordable housing, anything they can offer to set them apart is an advantage. If they are building or renovating a sustainable community, that can give them a leg up on the competition.

“It is competitive to get subsidies [for affordable housing],” Crimmin says. “Embedded in that competition is sustainability.” 

Those apartment owners are thinking bigger than toilets and light bulbs, though. They see solar as a viable option. WinnCo has more than a dozen communities with solar on the property and more than two dozen additional properties that participate as subscribers in community solar projects, which is a solar power plant whose electricity is shared by more than one household. Jubilee currently has solar at two communities and plans to install them at two more.

“Our buildings need to look good and perform well,” Mellet says. “We want to make sure that our residents are able to live comfortably in our apartment community.”

Solar, when done correctly, can help resident retention. In addition to reducing costs for Jubilee, energy produced by solar panels helps the community save money on residents’ Pepco electricity bills.

“The majority of our residents have very low incomes,” Mellet says. “They may have less than $800 a month of disposable income after paying rent. By using a community solar solution, the energy produced by the solar panels on our roof will be directed to our residents to reduce their monthly Pepco electric bills [by as much as $50 per month]. That additional $500 or so per year makes a huge difference.”

Mellett also says that the installation of a rack of advanced technology batteries will power a community room for residents if a major storm or other event shuts down the power to the building. This battery pack is powered by the solar array on the roof of the building.

“If there is a crisis, the majority of our residents do not own cars and are not able to leave the area – they will probably shelter in place.” Mellett says. “With the newly installed energy storage system, residents can safely shelter in place for three days during a crisis.”

When a building owner installs solar electricity in the District of Columbia, it can elect to have the energy sent to the grid or back to the buildings. The process isn’t easy.

“There are challenges connecting solar to the grid,” Crimmin says. “The learning curve can be steep.” 

One challenge with community solar is that residents must consent to subscribe to the facility to receive benefits. “It is hard to get renters to subscribe,” Crimmin says. “We engage them, educate them and ask them to sign the contract, but trust that the program is legitimate is a major factor.”

Crimmin says WinnCo needed to contact 2,000 residents to get 150 to sign up. He found that residents, who had been told to be on alert for scams from electric supply companies that go door-to-door and ask them to sign contracts, were suspicious of signing anything.

To overcome this hurdle, WinnCo hired a local non-profit and held outreach events, to bring residents onboard.

“Really, the key was going through the management office and working through the relationships the residents already had with the individuals that worked at the front desk, for instance,” Crimmin says. “They could reach out to the residents and confirm that the program was legit.”

Even with the additional complications, the result is worth the effort for WinnCo. “We are committed to sustainability and will continue to pursue innovative work in D.C. and across the country,” Crimmin says.