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Partners celebrate solar program for low-income homeowners in Allegheny County

  • Jillian Forstadt/WESA

 Envinity / Courtesy Of Solar United Neighbors

Solar United Neighbors (SUN) celebrated the first of several free solar panel installations for low- to moderate-income homeowners in Allegheny County on Thursday. The effort is part of a move to make the switch to green energy more equitable.

Low-income households on average spend a greater share of their income on energy than wealthier ones do. That has made it harder for homeowners on a fixed income, like Terry Fuller, to make the switch to solar even as the price to install panels continues to drop.

Fuller, who bought her home in Glen Hazel in 2006, said she typically pays Duquense Light around $125 a month for electricity. With rising rates and inflation, Fuller said even just $5 off her bill would be a relief.

“I’ve been wanting solar probably since 2008, and every time I looked into it, I could never really obtain it,” she said. “It was really out of my reach.”

That changed when, earlier this month, Carnegie-based EIS Solar installed a 6.12-kilowatt solar panel array on her home, expected to cover nearly her entire electricity bill.

Fuller’s property is the first of seven in the Glen Hazel and Hazelwood neighborhoods to receive a free solar-panel installation of up to 5 kilowatts (Fuller covered the difference), as well as a 15-year maintenance plan.

A ceremonial ribbon-cutting marked the occasion alongside community partners that made the program possible, including the Hazelwood Initiative, 350 Pittsburgh and the City of Bridges Community Land Trust.

Jillian Forstadt / 90.% WESA

A ceremonial ribbon-cutting marked the first of several free solar panel installations in Glen Hazel and Hazelwood. Solar United Neighbors’ low- to moderate-income solar program is part of an effort to make the switch to green energy more accessible for homeowners like Terry Fuller (center).

Henry McKay, SUN’s regional program director, said installations at two more homes are expected to finish in the coming days. City of Bridges will begin construction on the other four homes in Hazelwood slated to receive panels as part of the pilot program later this spring.

Back in 2020, Hazelwood became home to a 133,000-square-foot solar array, the largest single-sloped one in the country. The structure is part of the 178-acre development at Hazelwood Green, which developers hope will turn the former Jones & Laughlin mill “into a global center for tomorrow’s economy.”

But as new businesses come in, Tiffany Taulton, the Hazelwood Initiative’s director of outreach and sustainability, said it’s important the community’s long-term homeowners also benefit from the kinds of investments coming to Hazelwood.

“Here at Hazelwood Initiative, we are just really eager to make sure that the people that have stayed here the longest get to benefit from this new development in the community and that they are able indeed to stay here,” Taulton said. “Not only stay here but to thrive and to have a better life.”

The seven low- to moderate-income solar recipients are among 46 households part of SUN’s fourth solar co-op, launched in February 2022. The co-op — the largest of its kind in the Commonwealth, according to McKay — was designed to make it easier and cheaper for residents to make the switch to solar energy. Members can join for free, and by doing so have access to solar education resources and technical assistance from SUN.

Working together as a co-op helps residents secure a competitive installation rate, McKay added, with assistance from SUN as a neutral party.

“We recruit people all over the county to join, and then we help the members of the co-op pick which solar installer they want to work with,” he said.

SUN will launch another solar and electric vehicle charger co-op next week, through which another seven to 10 homeowners who earn 80% or less of the area median income will be eligible for the free installation program.

Councilwoman Barb Warwick, who represents Glen Hazel and Hazelwood, said she hopes programs like this one spark interest from lawmakers as they begin to distribute federal funding allocated by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.

The aid package bulked up existing tax credits for residential solar.

“There’s lots of new money out there for projects like this, and a lot of that money, again, is geared toward low and moderate income families,” Warwick said. “I’m really excited to work together with county officials, state officials, also federal officials, to make sure that that money comes here to this region.”


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