Capitol Alert

A guide to green energy savings for low-income Californians

The very existence of man-made climate change, much less the need for elected officials to do something about it, remains up for debate in some political quarters. Not in California.

California regularly promotes climate-friendly programs to provide more low-emission cars and charging stations, curb fossil fuel use and boost energy sources such as solar panels. A cap-and-trade pollution permitting system is reaping billions of dollars. A new law compels utility companies to glean half their electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

With the overarching goal of limiting emissions firmly in place, policymakers have turned their attention to spreading the wealth. Elected officials are increasingly working to ensure the benefits don’t just accrue to wealthy coast-dwellers with a Tesla in the garage and solar panels on the roof, passing laws and crafting programs tailored specifically to low-income Californians.

“Tackling climate change and dirty air requires that all low-income families also benefit,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, said earlier this year. “All Californians deserve clean air.”

Billions of dollars worth of incentives, support and rebates have already flowed to poorer Californians. That stream looks likely to widen thanks to a requirement that struggling communities get a quarter of the money from California’s cap-and-trade system, which has reaped a huge and growing pot of money by selling carbon emissions permits to business.

Here’s a look at what’s available.

1. Solar for homeowners

What does it do? The Single-Family Affordable Solar Homes program provides rebates to install solar panels for low-income homeowners, the idea being that the electricity-generating technology will lower carbon footprints and reduce energy bills. It’s funded by utility ratepayers.

Who is it for? Low-income residents in service areas of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison Co., and San Diego Gas & Electric. Applicants for SASH must live in affordable housing and have a household income worth 80 percent of the area median or less.

How much has it spent? SASH has paid out $86.5 million in rebates to fund 4,883 projects statewide.

How do I apply? All three utilities are accepting applications via a nonprofit called GRID Alternatives, which processes applications, manages applications and collects the rebates.

2. Solar for renters

What does it do? Two initiatives, the Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing program and a newly enacted solar funding program, try to spread solar energy to low-income renters.

The Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing program serves as an accompaniment to SASH, applying not to homeowners but to residents of multifamily, low-income residential housing complexes.

Building on the notion of getting solar energy to low-income Californians, Assembly Bill 693 allocates money to install solar energy systems on units within affordable multifamily buildings.

Who is it for? Both are targeted at renters who live in multifamily affordable housing units. MASH applies specifically to low-income residential complexes, with the owner of the building typically applying for the incentive. The systems often power common spaces.

The new successor program is open to people who live in multifamily complexes located in disadvantaged areas or whose incomes fall far enough below the median income in their area. It’s aimed at directly lowering tenants’ bills for electricity they consume in their apartment.

How much has it spent? Passed this year, AB 693 will direct as much as $100 million in cap-and-trade money to fund installations over the next 10 years. MASH has served 353 projects at a cost of $76 million, with another $14.7 million set aside for pending projects and an additional $50.2 million coming.

How do I apply? MASH is sufficiently popular that PG&E and SDG&E have stopped accepting new applications. While SCE is accepting new applicants here, they’re landing on a wait-list. The AB 693 program is still under development.

3. The Energy Savings Assistance Program

What does it do? This program seeks to lower energy costs by weatherizing homes inhabited by low-income residents, both renters and owners. It funds tools like extra insulation, sealing, and energy-efficient appliances such as refrigerators, furnaces and low-flow showerheads.

Who is it for? It’s open to households earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty line but limited to areas served by participating investor-owned utilities.

How much has it spent? Between 2003 and 2013, the program served more than 2.6 million homes for a cost of $2.24 billion, with the average cost in 2013 penciling out at around $970 per home. Funding comes from a “public goods charge” on utility bills.

How do I apply? Learn if you’re eligible and how to contact your utility at

4. The Low-Income Weatherization Program

What does it do? This program installs energy-saving devices like solar panels and solar-powered water heaters in low-income households.

Who is it for? Households located in communities designated as disadvantaged under that formula taking into account both economic indicators like income and air quality data. Here’s a map detailing where those areas lie.

How much has it spent? The program draws its funding from cap-and-trade and received $75 million in last year’s budget. The California Department of Community Services and Development has set aside $18.7 million to install solar panels on an anticipated 1,800 single-family homes through 2017.

How do I apply?

5. The California Solar Initiative Thermal Program

What does it do? This program offers cash rebates for installing solar-powered water heating technology.

Who is it for? Residents or commercial tenants who fall into the service territory of Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas, and San Diego Gas & Electric.

How much has it spent? So far the program has seen around 3,500 applications and sent $22.2 million to low-income residential households.

How do I apply?

6. The Enhanced Fleet Modernization Program

What does it do? Prods Californians into scrapping their old cars by offering cash rebates to turn in vehicles.

Who is it for? People with household income less than 225 percent of the federal poverty threshold can get $1,500 per vehicle.

Building on that, a pilot project called Plus Up – available to residents of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and the South Coast Air Quality Management District – provides funding for poorer Californians to replace their scrapped car with a low emission vehicle. Depending on how little money applicants make, they can receive between $6,500 and $9,500.

How much has it spent? The larger initiative gets about $30 million annually, funded by a $1 charge on vehicle registrations. The state has allocated $10 million in cap-and-trade funds for the pilot projects, which have so far issued about 400 vouchers at a cumulative cost of about $2.7 million.

How do I apply?

7. The Clean Vehicle Rebate Project

What does it do? This program offers rebates worth up to $5,000 for Californians who purchase or lease low- or zero-emission vehicles.

Who is it for? Anyone can take advantage of this program for now, but the Air Resources Board intends to impose an income cap and augment the rebates for lower-income applicants.

How much has it spent? So far, a slender fraction of the money has gone to people living in disadvantaged areas: of 124,127 rebates supplied at a value of $263.2 million, just 7,641 rebates worth about $16 million have gone to people living in census tracts designated as disadvantaged. The ARB approved another $163 million for the program via cap-and-trade.

How do I apply?

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert