Public Housing Authorities Find Power in Solar

Municipal owners are taking advantage of this viable source of sustainability, jobs, savings and revenue.
Left to right: Ben Foster, Ellen Sargent, Dennis Gonzalez Ramos, Bomee Jung

Despite funding and logistical challenges, public housing authorities are pursuing solar power to save money, create resiliency and meet broader environmental and social goals.

At the Greenbuild conference in Chicago, representatives from three large U.S. housing authorities—Chicago, New York and Puerto Rico, which, together represent 32 percent of the country’s public housing stock—spoke on a panel titled: “Commitment to Construction: Solar Power on Public Housing.” The panel was moderated by Ben Foster of ICF, a consultant to public housing authorities that want to incorporate solar power.

Foster stressed to the audience that across the country public housing authorities, faced with huge electric bills and shrinking budgets for capital improvements, are committing to big and small solar projects. Thus, there are many opportunities for service providers, regardless of how they participate in the market, to help municipal owners adopt solar solutions.

The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) is installing solar panels on two large communities: Altgeld Gardens and Dearborn Homes, where the city demolished 400 of the 1,900 units to make way for solar equipment. In addition to saving money, the solar projects will create jobs for the residents of these communities. A catalyst for the solar initiative was the Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act that mandates that 400 MW of community solar be built by 2030. 

With little money in its own budget, CHA will install the solar equipment through a $12 million grant. “When the money is not there, we have to be pretty creative to afford it,” said Ellen Sargent, director of Sustainable Initiatives and Projects at the Chicago Housing Authority.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has begun a solar program to reach its goal of 25 MW of solar capacity by 2025. According to Bomee Jung, the goals of the program are to: push the industry to provide career path green jobs for its residents, reduce energy costs for 10,000 of the 400,000 NYCHA households that pay their own electric bills, and to generate revenue for the agency. The solar program is part of NYCHA’s grander NextGeneration Sustainability Agenda.

After one year, the program has signed lease agreements with two large solar providers—through its Commercial Solar Initiative—to develop 6MW of power on roofs and above parking garages across eight of its developments. In addition to creating jobs and saving subscribers money on their electric bills, those agreements will generate $3.5 million in lease payments over the next 20 years. It has also granted license agreements to five teams of small businesses and local non-profits—through its AccessSolar Program—to propose to develop 6 MW of power over 20 developments.

Soaking Up the Sun

Before Hurricanes Maria and Irma left Puerto Rico without power for six months, the island’s public housing authority was exploring solar energy as a way to trim its $11.3 billion annual electric bill. After the hurricanes, it has aggressively gone after solar for resiliency. With funding from FEMA and a Community Development Block Grant from HUD, it recently launched a solar power and oasis pilot program.

One thing Puerto Rico has in its favor is ample sun. “Our solar projects are much more feasible, but the problem is funding,” said Dennis Gonzalez Ramos, deputy secretary, Puerto Rico Department of Housing.