Climate Access Fund wins $100,000 prize to expand community solar in Md.


A non-profit green bank has been awarded $100,000 to expand community solar in Maryland. The Climate Access Fund (CAF) received the funding through the Energizing Rural Communities Prize, which is aimed at advancing collaborative efforts to expand community solar sites benefitting low-income households in the three counties of the western region of the state.

This prize is part of the $1 billion Energy Improvements in Rural or Remote Areas (ERA) Program, created by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED). The ERA Program supports projects that improve the resilience, reliability, safety, availability, and environmental performance of energy systems in rural or remote areas of the U.S. with populations of no more than 10,000 people.

CAF is a statewide nonprofit green bank that reduces household energy burdens in historically disinvested communities through innovative clean energy development and finance. Energy burden is the percent of a household’s income that is spent on energy bills; the energy burden of Maryland’s low-income households is on average four to 21 times higher than their wealthier counterparts. CAF is focused on expanding community solar projects — larger-scale solar installations that make it possible for households unable to have solar panels on their own rooftops to still benefit from the environmental and economic advantages of solar power. 

“As we all struggle with a changing climate, it becomes more important than ever to make sure all communities benefit from clean energy,” said CAF CEO Lynn Heller. “Community solar can be owned locally, reduce households’ electricity bills and create jobs, all at no cost to the building or parking lot owner.” 

Since its inception in 2018, CAF has worked with local partners to identify rooftops, parking lots, and reclaimed land sites for community solar development. CAF-financed projects offer households and communities discounted electricity as well as benefits such as job and educational opportunities and community ownership of projects.

CAF has been collaborating since 2020 with western Maryland public officials and advocates in the renewable energy and climate justice arenas. The collaboration, named Solar4Us @ Mountain Maryland, aims to advance the development of community solar sites benefiting low-and-moderate income households in Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties.

Active partners include the city of Frostburg and Mountain Maryland Movement, a grassroots volunteer organization that since 2016 has been advocating for clean energy and a reduction of health harms from polluting energy sources. Solar4Us @ Mountain Maryland has one community solar project in active development and additional projects in its pipeline.

“We are excited to partner with the Climate Access Fund to bring community solar to low- and middle-income households in our community,” said Frostburg City Council member Nina Forsythe. “Typically, such households are last in line to take advantage of technologies that can improve their lives. This award will make it possible for them to have equal access. At the same time, they can be part of the solution to the climate change problem.”

The Energizing Rural Communities Prize provides critical catalytic funding to accelerate work in Allegany, Garrett, and Washington Counties that simultaneously reduces greenhouse gas emissions and the energy burden of low-income households through participation in community solar.

Solar4Us @ Mountain Maryland seeks to replicate CAF’s model to ensure community co-benefits will support the local economy. Solar4Us @ Mountain Maryland is actively seeking community solar sites, including but not limited to the rooftops of schools and other public buildings, religious institutions, commercial and industrial buildings, and/or brownfields that are at least 30,000 square feet. Solar4Us @ Mountain Maryland is eligible for another competitive Energizing Rural Communities Prize in the amount of $200,000, depending on their success in developing a community solar site by Summer 2024 and other evaluative criteria.

CAF’s demonstration project on the rooftop of Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School in Baltimore is slated to break ground in late 2023. All of the project’s energy savings will benefit low-income households; an estimated 150 households will save at minimum 20% on their electricity bills.

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