Energy: Can Green Solutions Reduce Energy Burdens?

Aminata Sandra Calhoun at her Belmont Avenue home.

Text and images by Elizabeth DeOrnellas.

It took only one day to install 16 solar panels on Aminata Sandra Calhoun’s Belmont Avenue home in West Philadelphia but it took six years for Calhoun to cut through financial and regulatory barriers to make that installation a reality. 

When she first started working with the Philadelphia Energy Authority to open up access to solar for herself and other community members, Calhoun says she encountered three barriers: credit checks, a requirement that Peco bills be paid on-time, and questions about whether or not recipients of Peco’s income-dependent Customer Assistance Program could qualify for solar instead. 

Now, Calhoun says, those barriers are gone.

“I feel the system is hearing and working with people,” she said, adding that she has a list of 35 neighbors she’s working to connect with PosiGen, the Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA) installer who worked on her home. 

Financially, Calhoun has seen dramatic results from going solar. Her system went fully operational last May. By June, her monthly electric bill had dropped from $277 to $1.08. Calhoun didn’t run air conditioning in her home, so the real savings test could come once heating hits. In July, it was only 97 cents.

“What I’m really looking forward to is to see what my energy bill is going to look like come the winter,” she said. 

The newly installed solar panels on Aminata Sandra Calhoun’s home.

Robert Freckleton is also waiting to see the full impact of his solar installation. His Mayfair property in Northeast Philadelphia regularly ran electricity bills of $300 to $400 per month and he was frustrated to see that costs did not significantly drop even when he was away serving in the military. 

After initial promotions run out, Freckleton will be paying about $50 a month for his solar panels.

“The guarantee and hope that I received from them is that it’s supposed to at least cut my bill in half,” he said. 

Freckleton said he has yet to see an electricity bill that reflects the active use of his solar panels. Despite the processing delays, he remains hopeful he’ll see cost savings this winter. 

Robert Freckleton at his Mayfair home.

Calhoun and Freckleton join at least 205 low-to-moderate income residents who have participated in PEA’s programs targeted toward expanding solar installations on city homes. 

Fifty of those households participated in the Built to Last home renovation program, another 50 in the Solar Savings Grant Program, and the remaining 105 signed leases through PosiGen, one of the installers that works with the PEA’s Solarize Philly initiative. PosiGen community marketing manager Julian Burnett, who lives in Mantua and is on a waiting list for his own solar installation, said Overbrook, Hunting Park, Strawberry Mansion, Parkside and Belmont have active community partnerships, with some customers in the pipeline and others already installed. 

Over the past five years, Solarize Philly has served a total of 1,200 homes across the city, according to PEA President and CEO Emily Schapira, who expressed a desire to scale up efforts to reach low-income homeowners. Solarize Philly defines low-to-moderate income customers as earning below 80 percent of area median income, set at $50,000 for an individual and $72,100 for a household of four.

“It matters who wins as we make this clean energy transition,” Schapira said. 

Lease options make solar a possibility for low-to-moderate income households in a market where buying solar equipment outright typically requires a minimum investment between $15,000 and $20,000, Burnett said. 

“Being frank, most LMI people don’t want to take on more debt,” Burnett added.

A PosiGen lease, in contrast, requires no upfront cost.

“It is an obligation for 20 years but it’s a fixed-rate obligation,” Burnett said. “If you could still be paying for gas what you did 20 years ago, would you do it?”

Lease payments are calculated based on the size of solar array needed for a given rooftop. According to Burnett, PosiGen’s typical customer owns a two-to-three story rowhouse with three-to-four bedrooms that requires a $60 per month lease payment for its solar array.

Such a customer, Burnett said, could expect to pay an additional $30 for electricity usage, bringing their total monthly payment to $90, versus the $200 to $300 monthly payment they could see without solar. 

Savings on that level could make a large dent in a household’s energy burden, which is defined as the percent of income spent on a resident’s energy bill. A September 2020 American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy study found “the median energy burden of low-income households in Philadelphia is four times higher than non-low-income households.” 

The ACEEE study also observed that “a quarter of low-income households have an energy burden above 19 percent in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, which is almost six times higher than the median energy burden” and that “the median energy burden of Black households in Philadelphia is 53 percent higher than that of non-Hispanic white households.”

Alon Abramson, PEA’s director of residential programs who runs the Built to Last initiative, said many participants in their pilot have energy burdens topping 30 percent.

Built to Last seeks to streamline city programs, using federal grant money and donations to provide participants with a complete home renovation that includes repairs as well as energy efficiency work such as installing solar panels and heat pumps. 

A consolidated intake process means homeowners can apply once and receive six or seven different services.

“We are maximizing different benefits programs so this family isn’t living in a home that is unhealthy, drafty and leaky,” Abramson said, “not to mention burning cash as they try to keep it warm and cold.” 

Built to Last has been working on its first 50 homes since October 2021. Abramson said that the initiative hopes to service 500 homes by 2025. 

Achieving a real reduction in energy burden requires a holistic assessment of a property’s needs, he explained.

“You can’t just go into a home that has basic systems problems and talk about light bulbs and HVAC systems,” Abramson said. “If there’s a sewage leak in the basement, you’re not going to weatherize that home. That’s not step one. We have to rethink step one.” 

Duct tape helps Robert Freckleton increase his home’s energy efficiency.

Steve Luxton, executive director at the Energy Coordinating Agency, has seen firsthand what happens when deferred maintenance damages properties to the point that requested energy conservation services can’t be performed. His agency weatherizes 200 homes a year but turns away at least one in every three applicants due to the condition of their property. 

Faulty heaters leave many residents stuck trying to heat their homes with gas ovens, Luxton said, observing that this is a dangerous option that can lead to elevated carbon monoxide levels. The ECA repairs heating systems for 5,000 Philadelphia homes each heating season, which runs from October to April.

“The first chilly morning, it’s on for us,” Luxton said. 

ECA Director of Heat Cynthia Olidge says it’s rare for a homeowner to be turned away if all they need is heater installation or repair.

“I’ve gone as far as putting stairs in a house so they can get a heater,” she said, noting that less than 10 homes a year are too damaged to receive heating services. 

Although heating used to be the primary energy concern the ECA addressed, this summer saw the first expansion of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to cover cooling services. Unfortunately, the backlog of heating repair requests didn’t clear until June 17, Luxton reported, explaining that overload exhausted the agency’s LIHEAP funding and left it turning to the Department of Community Economic Development for the funds that finally allowed the ECA to start distributing air conditioning units in August. 

In addition to confronting climate change, those seeking to help low-income Philadelphians with their energy burden must also contend with the fact that many programs only apply to homeowners.

Burnett said PosiGen has found a community partner, Blackfoot Development Trust, which aims to install solar on the single-family homes they converted to duplexes and triplexes in North and Northwest Philadelphia. The landlord will pay $60 to $70 a month for the solar equipment lease, and the tenant will receive a flat rate utility bill that Burnett estimates could see savings of $50 to $100 a month. 

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1 Comment

  1. WOW, WOW!
    First, thank you Elizabeth DeOrnellas!
    The written story of my Aminata Sandra Calhoun’s solar journey is so crisp and accurate.
    It was a delight and pleasure working with you.
    As it stands, I am graciously enjoying my solar energy home, even now winter my electric is $10.08 needless to say I’m lovin it!
    To date, I continue to bring awareness and education to people referencing “solar” and the benefits one can experience whether home owner or renter.
    I will continue forward as “Solar Sun Soul”!

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