The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Community Solar Partnership (NCSP) is partnering with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop, pilot, and make available to all LIHEAP administrators, the Low-Income Clean Energy Connector, a digital tool that makes community solar with verified savings and strong consumer protections more accessible to households participating in government-run low-income support programs. The Connector is initially intended only for Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) recipients. LIHEAP is an HHS program that assists eligible low-income households with home energy costs.

The Connector supports the NCSP target of enabling community solar systems to power the equivalent of 5 million households and create $1 billion in energy bill savings by 2025. The Connector represents one of the five National Community Solar Partnership initiatives on its Pathway to Success.

    Approach

    A collaborative team from NCSP, HHS, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO), and the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA) manage the Connector. The team coordinates with utilities, state and local governments, industry, and community-based organizations to develop the software. Connecting LIHEAP recipients to community solar subscriptions with verified savings and strong consumer protections through the Connector will reduce the cost of customer acquisition for solar developers and subscription managers, increase household savings and meaningful benefits for LIHEAP-enrolled households, and increase the deployment of community solar projects in states with low-income community solar programs.

    On July 27, 2022, DOE and HHS announced the pilot development of the Connector. Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia support the development of the Connector by providing feedback, coordination, beta testing, and data to advance its capabilities so it can be used nationwide. DOE will begin beta testing the fully developed software in Fall 2023 and anticipates opening the Connector to additional states in early 2024.

    In the fall of 2022, DOE issued a request for information to obtain feedback on the structure of the Connector from community-based organizations, community solar subscription managers and developers, state and local governments, researchers, LIHEAP implementation organizations, and others. Read the summary report of the request for information responses.

    The project team incorporated RFI feedback into the development of the project while also reaching hundreds of additional stakeholders through webinars, presentations, roundtables, and workshops. To date, DOE has engaged with utilities, affordable housing stakeholders, community-based organizations, developers, subscription managers, state energy offices and/or public utility commissions, state-wide community solar program administrators, state LIHEAP offices, and community action agencies to solicit additional feedback on the Connector software development and implementation plan. The project team also works closely with additional partner organizations, including:

    • American Public Power Association
    • Edison Electric Institute
    • National Community Action Partnership
    • National Consumer Law Center
    • National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition
    • National Rural Electric Cooperative Association
    • Solar United Neighbors
    • Stewards for Affordable Housing for the Future

    Fellowship

    The Low-Income Community Solar and Energy Assistance Fellowship placed three professionals into pilot states where the Connector is initially being tested to support the development of the Connector and ensure a smooth roll out across many more states. In summer of 2023, the three fellows began their fellowships at the following host institutions: Illinois Power Agency, DC Department of Energy and Environment, and the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.

    Innovation

    The partnership will address barriers to community solar adoption by low-income households and enable equitable access to community solar benefits by:

    • Reducing customer acquisition and management costs of low-income subscribers for community solar system developers and subscription managers by connecting them to pre-qualified applicants through LIHEAP.
    • Lowering electricity bills and high energy burdens for LIHEAP-eligible households over the long-term through enrollment in community solar subscriptions with verified savings.
    • Building investor confidence in low-income community solar programs by minimizing the perceived risk and turnover of low-income subscribers.
    • Expanding the community solar market to reach its multi-gigawatt potential, speeding demand for clean energy deployment.
    • Creating clean energy jobs in community solar project development and installation, and in continued operations and maintenance.

    Expanding community solar to all LIHEAP recipients could lead to gigawatts of new community solar deployment, increased access for low-income households, and billions in energy savings.

    Join Us

    NCSP is an active group of community members, developers, utilities, financial institutions, and governments dedicated to increasing access to, and the benefits of, community solar for all U.S. households. Partners receive access to no-cost, on-demand technical assistance, technical resources, training, events, and an online platform for connecting with other collaborative partners. Register on our Mobilize website to join the partnership today!

    Additional Information

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Process Questions
     

    1. To use the Connector, in states that it is available, community solar subscription managers will create an account, indicate the states they work in, agree to the consumer protection requirements for each state, then submit their projects with available subscriptions to the Connector. Subscription managers will then receive information for individual households for each available subscription and will pay a customer acquisition fee for each household they subscribe.
    2. The state administrator will verify and approve the subscription managers and projects for inclusion in the Connector and will ensure subscription managers adhere to the consumer protection requirements, including verified savings amounts.
    3. Local LIHEAP administrators will provide educational materials to households at the time of LIHEAP enrollment. If community solar subscriptions are available, households can opt-in to enroll in a subscription. If they are not available, households can indicate interest in a community solar subscription so the Connector can track where projects could be built to meet demand. Households will give consent to have data shared through the Connector with subscription managers.
    4. LIHEAP administrators will then upload data of households who opted into community solar to the Connector. Where appropriate, local LIHEAP administrators will receive funding support for providing the educational resources and administrative needs of connecting households to community solar.
    5. Subscription managers will then connect with households that have opted-in to community solar to complete enrollment.

    There will be a 20% minimum household savings requirement for subscriptions to be available through the Connector. 

    The Connector will connect a household with one subscription manager to enroll in a community solar subscription that meets the consumer protection and savings requirements. Household data will not be shared widely with companies and subscription managers will adhere to data privacy protections.

    LIHEAP households will not directly use the Connector. The users of the Connector include subscription managers, local LIHEAP administrators, and state program administrators. LIHEAP households will use the Connector by opting into Community Solar when enrolling in LIHEAP and will then receive enrollment information from a community solar subscription manager.


    Getting Started
     

    1. States must have a low-income community solar program with minimum household savings requirements and agree to enforce minimum consumer protection requirements in order to join the Connector.
    2. To implement the Connector in a new state, DOE requests that both the Energy Office and/or Public Utility Commission AND the State LIHEAP Office jointly agree to participate in the project. DOE requires both offices to jointly sign an Agreement to participate.
    3. Additional steps that states may need to take before they can use the Connector include updating LIHEAP intake forms, reviewing program rules, and creating training and enrollment materials. DOE plans to create a guidebook for states to help facilitate states joining the Connector, to be released in early 2024.
    4. If you are a state and want to discuss further, please contact community.solar@ee.doe.egov with your interest.

    On June 15, 2023, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published an informational memorandum (IM) on community solar and LIHEAP considerations. The purpose of the IM is to confirm for HHS grant recipients that LIHEAP funds can be used for solar energy use through new and existing electric payment mechanisms, such as community solar subscription fees, as well as to provide LIHEAP grant recipients with recommendations to consider when utilizing LIHEAP funds for community solar subscriptions.


    Additional Questions
     

    The Connector currently only connects LIHEAP eligible households with community solar projects. The Connector could be expanded in the future to include additional income-qualified programs.

    The Connector is currently in the user testing stage of the pilot. We have three user types testing the software: subscription managers, state administrators, and local LIHEAP administrators. We anticipate full beta testing of the software to run from fall 2023 through spring 2024.

    DOE is partnering with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide state-specific and federal guidance to ensure that community solar does not impact utility allowances. Learn more on our Community Solar and Low-Income Utility Allowances webpage.