Energy Efficiency Meet Housing Affordability

6 min read

Winn and DC Solar for All save tenants $500 annually

The rise in home costs has led to some creative solutions and workarounds by city governments to reduce prices. In a previous column, I labelled these tactics as generally falling under supply-side or demand-side categories. Supply-side solutions include rehabilitating older public housing; building new LIHTC units; and granting developers density bonuses in exchange for affordability set-asides. Popular demand-side solutions include rent control or vouchers.

Another demand-side policy is programimg that offers some sort of assistance, whether to owners or renters, for the costs of living in their homes. This can include assistance programs for home repairs, utility payments and more. A recent initiative in Washington, DC, will follow this niche strategy by lowering tenants’ energy costs using solar panels.

In 2016, DC’s Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) established the Solar For All program as part of the Renewable Portfolio Standard Expansion Amendment Act of 2016 (The Act). The Act intends to expand DC’s solar capacity, to increase the amount of solar power generated within the District, and to provide the benefits of locally-generated solar energy to low-income households, small businesses, nonprofits and seniors. Funded by the Renewable Energy Development Fund (REDF), and administered by DOEE, Solar for All’s specific targets are to provide the benefits of solar electricity to 100,000 low-income households (at or below 80 percent Area Median Income), and to reduce their energy bills by 50 percent (based on the 2016 residential rate class average) by 2032. (For more information about Solar for All, visit:

Here’s how the community solar program works. The clean energy from rooftop solar panels will be fed into the District’s utility grid through an arrangement known as net metering. The savings will then be passed back to qualified low-income residents through credits reflected on their utility bills. Income-qualified residents (as defined by DOEE) are able to sign up as Solar “Subscribers” who will then be enrolled through Pepco, the city’s privately-run public utility, and receive solar credits automatically on their monthly utility bill. Each subscriber is eligible to receive up to $500/annually for at least 15 years. This is an innovative program that allows residents to save considerably on their annual electric costs, which can often be a burden on households.

“Solar for All’s specific targets,” says the city website, “are to provide the benefits of solar electricity to 100,000 low-income households (at or below 80 percent AMI), and to reduce their energy bills by 50 percent…by 2032.”

Enter Winn
An early participant in the program has been WinnCompanies, one of the nation’s largest affordable multifamily management firms. This past March, the company completed a groundbreaking solar project, the largest under this DOEE program. After being awarded a $1.3 million grant, it installed a 651-kilowatt community renewable energy facility onto the Atlantic Terrace apartments – a 195-unit affordable housing community that it owns in southeast DC. The newly-installed solar panels are part of a broader $20 million-plus renovation of the complex, which consists of six mid-rise apartment buildings.The panels are expected to deliver 650,000 kilowatt hours of energy per year with the associated savings being transferred directly to residents.

“Community solar projects prove that solar is not just a luxury for those that can afford their own panels, but that solar can also work for renters living in multifamily housing,” said Darien Crimmin, vice president of Energy and Sustainability, WinnCompanies. “This project will benefit over 150 income-eligible households over the next 15 years, helping to create jobs, improve local air quality and showcase the success of the Solar for All Program for District residents. WinnCompanies will continue working with DOEE and Solar for All to expand the District’s solar capacity and provide the benefits of solar energy to local communities, helping residents save up to $500 a year. Community solar for affordable housing would not have been possible without DOEE’s funding to ensure residents benefit; there has to be a source somewhere,” Crimmin said by phone.

And in fact, he continued, the idea of adding solar panels period—much less ones that redistribute energy credits to tenants—is economically difficult, both in DC and elsewhere. For one, there’s not a set regulatory structure that has kept pace with innovations in the solar energy industry. As a result, property builders and managers are not working with clear rules in many cities. Another factor, continued Crimmin, is that large energy utilities do not generally embrace the solar model. It costs too much in new infrastructure and accounting to integrate this entirely new generation method into their grids.

Also, in many cities, there just isn’t much available roof space. This is especially so in DC. A lot of roofs there are already consumed by pools, patios and other recreational uses. Even where room for solar panels does exist, buildings have often been erected to their maximum heights, which in DC are famously strict. Above all else, many roofs are old and can’t handle the added weight of solar panels. To accommodate them, roofs must be replaced, in an expensive process that would never be offset by the energy cost savings.

This was the case for the Atlantic Terraces, which WinnCompanies has owned for 30 years. The roofs on those buildings were “not going to last for the duration of the solar panels’ useful life, which is 25 years,” said Crimmin. So one major renovation was replacing the roofs on all the buildings.

While WinnCompanies’ solar panel deal with DOEE was large, others have been organized in DC. Groundswell, Inc., a clean energy nonprofit, received a $1.2 million grant to install solar panels on six churches across the city. Another solar panel company called New Partners Community got a $2 million grant to place installations on 25 commercial, nonprofit and apartment rooftops. And there are multiple other examples in DC listed on the DOEE website.

A public goal
Solar panel subsidies are not a new thing, of course. There is a federal investment tax credit which allows one to deduct 30 percent of the cost of installing a solar energy system from their federal taxes. Various state and local programs offer additional tax incentives and rebates. In San Francisco, there is even a mandate for new buildings to install solar panels.

The interesting thing about DOEE’s Solar For All program is that it adds an additional public goal to the mix. The perceived benefit of solar panels has always been that they generate energy from the sun, proving less carbon-intensive than other energy forms. But DOEE launched this program to leverage energy in a way that also enables cheaper electricity bills for some DC residents. In this sense, Solar for All is one of many programs—in the city and nationwide—that is trying to reduce the cost of staying sheltered.

Story Contact:
Darien Crimmin
VP of Energy & Sustainability, WinnDevelopment