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Low-income solar programs for energy justice are often undersubscribed – New research has a solution

close up of solar panel with a panel with robert downey jr's face on it and an illustration of a house
Image Credit: Michael Wilson // Unsplash. Illustrations by Nate Merritt. Graphic by Miquéla Thornton.

Since its founding during the 2001 California energy crisis and its first installation for a San Francisco family in 2004, Oakland-based GRID Alternatives has installed 19,838 systems of rooftop solar across U.S. cities and tribes in California, Colorado, Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, and internationally serving Nicaragua, Nepal, and Mexico.

GRID Alternatives has seen success as a pioneer in low-income single-family solar and as a job trainer for the installations. It is the nation’s largest nonprofit solar installer, delivering its customers millions in savings and delivering the planet over a million tons in emission reductions.

Still, while subsidized energy programs have become a popular tool in promoting environmental and energy justice thanks to leading efforts by nonprofits like GRID, studies show that they, like other social benefit programs, are often undersubscribed.

That’s why GRID Alternatives partnered with researchers to figure out how to better reach households that qualify for the help and are interested in it.

“It can sound too good to be true when you’ve got someone saying we can give you solar panels at no cost,” Kim Wolske, a University of Chicago professor of environmental psychology, told the publication Inside Climate News.

Many nonprofits rely on referrals from past customers to reach the people who would benefit from their services, usually through word-of-mouth.

Wolske and her colleagues, Annika Todd-Blick of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley and Emma Tome, a Bay area Air Pollution Specialist at the California Air Resources Board, conducted a study that used behavioral science to understand how to improve the efficacy of the peer referral method.

Their results, published in the July issue of Nature Energy, show that through a few simple changes, organizations can drastically improve their reach.

rooftop solar panel at dusk
Image Cedit: Giorgio Trovato // Unsplash

In partnering with GRID, which has a long list of past customers, the research team split them into three groups.

The first received the control referral package which included a reminder of a conditional $200 reward for referring qualified customers, meaning people who meet the low-to-moderate income standard, and have roofs that support solar, and permission to install it. This was referred by phone or online.

The second received the package in the same way but with a $1 non-contingent gift thanking the customer for being a part of the GRID community, and the last included a reminder of the $200 reward and the $1 gift — the only difference was it was mailed instead of delivered via phone or web. This mail also included a referral slip and a pre-stamped return envelope.

The results were surprising, showing that something as small as a $1 gift, which the researchers said show customers reciprocity, increased the referral rate. Receiving a referral slip in the mail also increased simplicity – much like how simpler financial aid applications for college streamline the process. Paired with the $1 ‘thank you’ GRID received referral rates from the third group at 7.5 times that of the control.

The researchers noted that one drawback could be an incentive to list non-qualified applicants. Still, the research group showed that the third group still referred 7.3 times the number of qualified applicants, with the second group only referring 2.5 times more than the control.

So why does this matter?

The communities that organizations like GRID target are the most impacted by pollution and often overburdened by the other negative effects of climate change like bad air and water quality and blackouts, which are more likely to happen during times of extreme weather. This is especially important for tribal reservations, for example; the Energy Information Administration estimates that 14% of them have no access to electricity, ten times that of the national average.

When power shortages left many Native reservations without power during the pandemic, many turned to renewables for off-grid living. Beyond the economic and social justice potential of solar energy, the leaders of many reservations thought it helped pave the way for more tribal energy security amid future challenges.

GRID’s Tribal program focuses on energy sovereignty amid the climate crisis, but its overall work isn’t limited to solar installations, as they are working to bring no-cost battery storage technology to Californians most affected by wildfires and power shutoffs, including Tribal communities, and expanding its reach in clean mobility.

Recent partnerships from utility Xcel Energy with funding from CARB and support from the GM Climate Equity Fund are helping the organization in its mission to bring electric vehicles and EV infrastructure to communities of color overburdened with pollution from gas transportation.

As GRID Alternatives expands its reach, research like this will ensure they’re able to reach the people who will benefit most, and as more programs emerge with low and moderate-income solar policy increasing in the U.S. more programs will be able to take a page from their book.

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