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New solar panel program would let disadvantaged communities plug into clean energy opportunities

Stock, close up image of solar panels on the roof of a home.
Growth Opportunity Partners, which focuses on equitable access to capital, is leading an effort to drop barriers to clean, affordable energy for lower income residents in urban, suburban and rural areas.

Solar panels may soon be more easily available to low-income residents in Northeast Ohio through a partnership led by a Cleveland-based ”green bank.”

Growth Opportunity Partners is leading the charge across eight Rust Belt states with a focus on access to solar for low-income, disadvantaged communities.

The program aims to help homeowners and renters burdened by the cost of utility bills in urban, suburban and rural areas alike, CEO Michael Jeans said.

"We're seeing in some of our suburban communities an aging population that perhaps has a fixed income, but needs some of these kinds of solutions, so that their operating costs at home are lower," Jeans said. "There's, rural communities across Northeast Ohio, and I think sometimes rural communities get painted as homogenous and we forget about some of the diversity, whether it's income or ethnicity or otherwise."

In Ohio, energy burden is when 5% or more of a household's income goes toward utility bills, Jeans said But in some Northeast Ohio communities, households are spending upwards of 30% of their income on utilities.

"So if 5% is burdened, I don't know what adjective you put in front of 30%, but that's an incredible burden on those households," he said.

Growth Opportunity Partners will lead the Industrial Heartland Solar Coalition, a collaborative effort in 31 communities across eight states — Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — where the cost of utilities puts unique pressure on residents struggling to make ends meet.

"We became involved as the first African American-led green bank in the country," Jeans said, "with a particular focus on improving quality of life, improving health care outcomes through the lens of environment and creating financing solutions and capital solutions, that don't put burden on ... the back of low income and moderate income residents."

The city of Maple Heights would qualify, Mayor Annette Blackwell said, as the city's poverty rate sits around 22% with a median income of about $60 thousand. And the need for accessible solar panels in neighborhoods like Maple Heights is great Blackwell said, since, even as mayor, she struggled to find information on solar panel programs.

"[It's] very difficult," she said. "It wasn't in layman's terms for people to know how to access it, to understand it, what it would mean, what their cost was. And to be honest with you, it's still a little bit of a mystery for me as I try to decipher it."

Growth Opportunity Partners says it’s in final negotiations with the U.S. EPA for $156 million in federal funding through the Inflation Reduction Act to support its solar equity efforts.

The coalition is committed to using the funds to support 3.5 million low-income residents, create one thousand solar energy jobs and generate $5.4 million for the region's economy, Jeans said, while reducing annual carbon emissions by nearly 161 thousand tons.

"This is a real opportunity for us to depoliticize climate," Jeans said, "and for us as citizens to embrace the effects of climate change and to embrace our environment, because we all share it."

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.