Key Considerations for Integrating Solar Energy into Affordable Housing Developments

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By Linden Speranza, Building Program Manager and Technical Services Coordinator for Labella Associates

Renewable energy policy is gaining momentum across the country. Twenty-four states have already adopted net-zero carbon and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions electricity generation goals. With full compliance targeted as early as 2030, lawmakers are looking to carbon-neutral solar power to help achieve these goals. Methods to increase the adoption of solar power nationwide include prioritizing low-income populations who may not have the real estate assets and initial investments needed for on-site residential solar power.

More than ever, real estate developers and underserved communities stand to gain from strong public funding opportunities for solar energy. Coupled with a growing interest in projects that address the environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects of investing, integrating renewable energy into your next affordable housing project can offer an array of sustainability benefits. developers, municipalities and end users.

With this, there are important considerations for implementing solar power in affordable housing development projects.

System selection, design and authorization

Credit: Labella Associates

Developers have a few options for incorporating solar energy into an affordable housing project, including the use of ground, roof, or carport mounting systems.

Common criticisms of the permitting phase of ground mount systems include their physical space requirements, especially when developing on “raw land” or a previously undisturbed site. In this case, developers can utilize the otherwise unused and often flat roof space available on multi-family buildings. When combined with reflective roof coverings and bifacial modules with a higher fixed pitch to increase production, rooftop solar will reduce facility cooling costs.

The case for offsite ground mounting systems can always be presented, especially for states with established community solar uptake policies. Brownfields can be targeted to minimize environmental concerns, often with additional funding opportunities like NYSERDA’s New York Brownfields Incentive, which can be paired with the Inclusive Community Solar Adder to further target disadvantaged communities.

Solar carports can also play a role. They protect tenants from inclement weather, redirect rainfall to improve soil conditions or nourish landscaping, minimize winter maintenance and reduce the urban heat island. These characteristics can help make the case for investments in green buildings like the federal Enterprise Green Communities program, a key benefit in the context of high steel costs.

Other design considerations include the incorporation of complementary emerging technologies. Bret Garwood, CEO of Home Leasing, a Rochester, New York-based property development, construction and management company with operations in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, highlights his organization’s “all-electric” approach to its latest affordable housing portfolio. This commitment capitalizes on technical improvements in electric heating and anticipates pending New York legislation to ban gas hookups in new buildings, citing climate change concerns. This safer, low-carbon mining strategy could gain traction in other states.

Home Leasing is also proactively adding electric vehicle (EV) charging stations to several of its upcoming projects.

“As the electric vehicle market and its supporting infrastructure grows to make electric vehicles more accessible, Home Leasing anticipates that electric vehicle charging will become an increasingly desirable piece of equipment, especially for mixed-income projects” , said Garwood.

Leslie Vishwanath of National Grid, an electric utility in New York, manages projects and community engagement for the EV Charging Station Make Ready program – a utility incentive for a variety of customers, including homeowners and multi-unit housing managers. Program can cover up to 100% of infrastructure costs to support EV charger installation, including distribution transformers, conduits and conductors, and increases equitable access to EV charging for New Yorkers.

For residents without a vehicle, proximity to clean transport is also an important factor. Many states are committing to electrifying their public bus fleets and policy makers are exploring new strategies to reduce GHG emissions and other localized pollution.

Vishwanath cites a partnership between National Grid and the city of Beverly, Massachusetts, which successfully piloted vehicle-to-grid school buses, as a creative example of the benefits of integrating emerging technologies to serve multiple policy purposes – the pilot uses buses equipped with bi-directional battery storage to reduce peak network demand in summer.

Public funding collaboration and incentive stratification

As the former director of housing for a nonprofit serving low-income communities, Vishwanath sees a growing opportunity to streamline the integration of renewable energy adoption goals with affordable housing initiatives.

“While investments in renewable energy typically lead to operational savings over the life of the facility, high upfront costs and the rollback of energy benchmarking and other administrative requirements are barriers to greater high participation in incentive programs,” she said.

As financial feasibility remains the main driver of solar investment, a review of available financing and its requirements should take place in conjunction with design phase planning to give developers the best chance of completing the project.

Garwood recently navigated the New York incentive market for a now operational 2.2 MW ground-mounted solar panel providing electricity to 500 affordable housing units. He believes the key to expanding the market is greater collaboration between local, state and federal incentive programs and a greater emphasis on non-economic solar benefits.

“Until clearer methods for normalizing the monetization of the public health, environmental, and social justice benefits of solar energy are available, blueprints need to be worked out,” he said.

The complexity of connecting resources between multiple funding sources with unique administrative requirements is a significant barrier to market development.

“Incentive program managers should choose to engage with each other to simplify the process of navigating the public funding landscape,” Vishwanath said.

She recommends more technical assistance to applicants, including raising awareness and connecting ESG-focused resources. Unifying funding requests can also help developers make investment decisions earlier, relieving pressure on clogged interconnect queues.

This feedback is heard. New York-based Homes and Community Renewal and NYSERDA recently partnered to develop the Clean Energy Initiative to offset the costs of adding sustainable features to affordable housing projects, especially those already funded through government bonds. State and Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Programs.

Benefits for residents and communities

Low-income neighborhoods have always been subject to unsightly and harmful infrastructure and manufacturing developments. As we move away from fossil fuels, solar advocacy organizations like SEIA are working to include and engage affected neighbors when siting solar projects. SEIA is actively developing solar project pathways for education and workforce opportunities, reframing residents as active participants in the new energy economy.

Increasing renewable energy production also helps offset the negative health effects of coal-fired power plants. The 2022 EPA introduction of the Multi-Pollutant Power Plant Strategy paves the way for increased recognition and monetization of the health impacts of coal power, making future siting more difficult and strengthening the attractiveness of solar investment.

Price-sensitive tenants will also benefit from low and predictable energy prices, especially for all-electric projects. Utility bills can be an unpredictable part of an affordable housing community’s operating budget. Adding solar power can stabilize electricity prices and simplify a homeowner’s financial projections.

Solar deployment on affordable housing projects can be used to better distribute the benefits of renewable energy across communities, especially historically underserved populations. When paired with ambitious carbon reduction and renewable energy mandates, the case for solar power on affordable housing is a powerful one.


Linden Speranza is the Solar Building Program Manager and Technical Services Coordinator at architectural firm LaBella Associates. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Public Policy with magna cum laude honors from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2010. She went on to earn a Master of Science in Science, Technology, and Public Policy in 2015, specializing in sustainability topics. She has 10 years of experience as a project management professional and began her career as a GIS planning assistant before managing projects to build healthy green homes for disadvantaged communities. She started working in the solar industry in 2014 and has since led over 100 residential and commercial solar projects through the design and construction phases.

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