What Is Equitable Access to Solar Energy?

Over the past decade, the costs of solar energy system have fallen and solar electricity has become significantly more affordable for Americans. More than 2 million solar energy systems are operating across the United States. Despite this unprecedented deployment, many Americans still lack access to affordable solar electricity, including many renters, homeowners who lack affordable financing options, and those without suitable roof conditions.

Soft costs, or non-hardware costs, play a role in limiting solar access and affordability. The Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) is committed to funding research projects that will lower soft costs and enable all Americans to benefit from solar energy. Learn more about how soft costs work.

Why Is Equitable Access to Solar Energy Important?

Increasing equitable access to solar means that solar energy is available and affordable for all U.S. consumers. Funding research projects in this area enables SETO to address energy burden, which is the percentage of a household’s income that is spent on energy. For low-income households, the energy burden is three times higher than for non-low-income households. A high energy burden can threaten a household’s ability to pay for energy and force tough choices between paying energy bills and buying food, medicine, or other essentials.

By making solar energy’s economic benefits available to all individuals and communities, SETO will come closer to meeting its goals. Learn more about SETO’s goals.

SETO Research in Equitable Access to Solar Energy

SETO identifies strategies for expanding equitable access to solar energy by supporting research, technical assistance, and collaboration among multiple stakeholder groups to solve financing, business, market, and other barriers for residential and community solar, and working to broadly disseminate solutions.

Equitable solar access projects are divided amongst three main areas: data collection and analysis, innovative and equitable financing, and increasing community solar access. Read more about them below.

Data Collection and Analysis

Data collection and analysis plays an important role in allowing more people to access solar energy. Projects in this area gather data to improve market transparency of solar adoption trends and analyze the data to understand the barriers the low- and moderate-income households face in going solar.

DOE’s National Laboratories manage most of SETO’s projects that address equitable solar data collection and analysis and there are several others funded under the Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Studies 2 funding program. These projects identify barriers for low-income customers and develop solutions for overcoming those challenges.

Innovative and Equitable Financing

For households without resources to pay for the upfront costs of a new solar installation, the typical financing options are either a loan or a power purchase agreement. But these options can exclude low- and moderate-income Americans, who may not qualify for those financing options.

SETO-funded projects evaluate alternative solar financing models or low-income consumers, develop new tools and methods to better assess credit risk, and engage community financial institutions and other capital sources in expanding solar financing in low-income communities. Projects addressing these issues are funded in the Solar Energy Technologies Office Fiscal Year 2019 funding program and the Solar Energy Technologies Office Fiscal Year 2018 funding program.

Increasing Community Solar Access

The Department of Energy defines community solar as any solar project or purchasing program, within a geographic area, in which the benefits of a solar project flow to multiple customers such as individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and other groups.

Most recently, SETO launched the National Community Solar Partnership, which consists of a coalition of community solar stakeholders working to expand access to affordable community solar to every American household by 2025 and enable community solar to provide meaningful benefits to customers. Partners leverage peer networks and technical assistance resources to set goals and work to overcome persistent barriers to expanding community solar access to underserved communities.

Previously, the Solar In Your Community Challenge, a $5 million prize competition, spurred the development of new and innovative financial and business models that serve non-rooftop solar users. Teams developed projects or programs that expanded solar access to underserved groups and proved their business models can be widely replicated and adopted. Read a report on the challenge.

On May 4, 2021, SETO released a Request for Information (RFI) on strategies for equitable community solar development. Read a summary of the responses.

SETO also funded several projects to research how community and shared solar can increase solar energy access in the Solar Market Pathways funding program.

Lab Reports and Other Resources

To view specific projects that support equitable access to solar energy, search the Solar Energy Research Database.

Learn more about soft costs research, other solar energy research in SETO, and current and former funding programs.