Making solar accessible for Habitat for Humanity households

February 2020

Habitat for Humanity homes and solar energy seem like a natural combination, since the solar installation can help reduce energy burden—the percent of household income spent on energy bills. But there have been relatively few such projects in Minnesota.

That’s one reason that the 3.9 kW solar project installed by RREAL on the Jensen family home in Foley, MN is special. With the help of their new solar array, the Jensens are benefiting from energy savings and acting as a model for future Habitat solar installs.

In Minnesota, 1 in 4 households experience housing insecurity at some point in their lives due to unpredictable rent prices, relocation, and lack of access to affordable housing.

Jason Edens, founder of Rural Renewable Energy Alliance

Habitat for Humanity helps address housing insecurity by building affordable homes. Even after a home is built, the costs of home ownership continue, which includes the ongoing and increasing cost of energy. Solar presents an opportunity to make energy affordable to families. This particular installation made a big difference for the Jensen family in Foley, MN.

The Jensens received their Central Minnesota Habitat for Humanity home 10 years ago. Mr. Jensen is a disabled veteran and together with his wife, they have three grown children. Their home was a perfect candidate for solar with a south-facing roof and no obstructions. It also is an all electric house, which made energy bills expensive, but an even better fit for solar PV. The system is expected to generate 4,900 kWh of electricity annually, a lifetime savings of about $20,000 for the Jensen family.

In addition to the $4,000 CERTs Seed Grant, RREAL leveraged other resources for this project, including equipment donations from Werner Electric and project funding from Central Minnesota Habitat for Humanity.

Advancing the model through research

The largest barrier to replicating Solar for Humanity installations is financing the upfront costs of the project. RREAL was grateful to the financial supporters of this project, but they also knew that they needed to find other ways to sustain these projects in the future.

To explore those opportunities, RREAL worked with the University of Minnesota Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership and two Humphrey School of Public Policy graduate students on a report to find innovative finance mechanisms and recommendations for expanding the Solar for Humanity projects across Minnesota.

Specifically, they engaged Humphrey faculty member Dr. Gabriel Chan and graduate research assistants Jordan Morgan and Ryan Streitz on an analysis of nonprofit solar partnerships with Habitat for Humanity. They analyzed 56 case studies of partnerships between solar nonprofits and Habitat for Humanity around the nation—including RREAL’s—to assess the nature of current Habitat for Humanity solar partnerships and their advantages and disadvantages.

The authors then identified five different (current and potential) models of financing that vary in complexity and in the allocation of costs and benefits among homeowners, the nonprofit solar organization, and the Habitat for Humanity affiliate. They also examined possible financing tools, including internal funds and donations, outside private investors, debt financing, and programs such as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), the Community Reinvestment Act, and Minnesota’s Conservation Improvement Program.

They concluded that a “highly flexible model design can allow for greater tailoring of approaches. All approaches have inherent tradeoffs, and the best solution in a particular context may depend on stakeholder and community characteristics.”

You can download the full report, Solar for Humanity: Nonprofit Solar Partnerships with Habitat for Humanity.

  • Technology: Solar Electric
  • Central CERT Seed Grant: $4,000
  • Total Project Cost: $30,834.54
  • Other Funds: Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (RSDP), Central MN Habitat for Humanity, electrician’s donations
  • Project Team: Erica Bjelland, Jason Edens, BJ Allen, Ben Butcher, Brook Ferrian, Kevin Peters, Cris Winch, Anthony Fair, Tonya Jones (RREAL), Art Buhs (Central MN Habitat for Humanity), Jenna Edwards, Randy Moberg, Andy Vo (Werner Electric), Molly Zins (Central RSDP)
  • People Involved and Reached: 90
  • Annual Energy Generated: 4,897 kWh

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