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Houston Chronicle: Harris County, Texas Southern University-led coalition win part of $7 billion federal solar fund

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By James Osborne, Claire Hao, Houston Chronicle, April 22, 2024

WASHINGTON — Harris County will receive part of a $7 billion federal grant toward installing solar panels and battery systems in low-income and disadvantaged communities across Texas, part of President Joe Biden’s plan to expand access to solar energy nationwide.

The administration announced Monday that 60 applicants had been selected for its Solar for All program, with more than 900,000 American households expected to get rooftop solar systems or access to community solar farms.

“Today we’re delivering on President Biden’s promise that no community is left behind,” Administrator Michael Regan of the Environmental Protection Agency said.

Harris County is leading a coalition of Texas municipalities — including Dallas County and the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Waco — that represent 11 million low-income Texans, with plans to install solar panels and battery storage systems on homes and other buildings across the state. The program will also create training programs for residents to find jobs in the solar sector. The coalition applied for a $400 million grant from Solar for All and received $250 million. The coalition’s proposal aims to lower customer bills by more than 20% in targeted communities, according to a statement issued after it was announced as a recipient.

Zoe Middleton, former deputy director of community affairs and advocacy for Houston’s Precinct 1 office, said in December that the bulk of Harris County’s portion of the funding would be used to build a series of microgrids, or localized power grids that can disconnect from the main grid, on public land and brownfield sites. The county’s application also carved out a few million dollars for rooftop solar to expand across Houston what is called the “hub house model,” in which community members gather at a person’s home or community center if there is an outage.

Also selected was the Clean Energy Fund of Texas, a partnership with Texas Southern University and other historically Black colleges and universities as well as Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges and universities. The group applied for a $250 million grant to install an estimated 172 megawatts of solar and 84 megawatt-hours of battery systems on its network of 60 to 70 campuses in the South, Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. It received just over $156 million.

“This funding will change the course of solar energy and equity across Texas and the South,” Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University known as the father of environmental justice, said in a statement. “Southern states bear a disproportionate burden of high energy costs and climate pollution, and now — with this funding — we can turn the tide.”

The announcement comes as Biden moves to shore up his climate and economic credentials six months ahead of a presidential election.

On Monday, Earth Day, he was expected to give a speech at Prince William Forest Park outside Washington, D.C., to formally announce the Solar for All grants. He also was to speak on the expansion of the American Climate Corps, which his administration created to provide training and jobs for young Americans to work in protecting the planet from climate change — modeled on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps.

“This is emblematic of the swing for the fences, big bold climate action the president has championed from day one,” Ali Zaidi, the president’s national climate adviser, said in an interview with reporters. “Anyone, no matter their economic background, can tap into the savings of clean energy.”

Expected to stand with Biden on Monday was be Stephen K. Brown II, founder of the Clean Energy Fund of Texas, and Billy Briscoe, the group’s chief operating officer, who both went to HBCUs. In an interview before Solar for All recipients were announced, Brown and Briscoe said the group’s application proposed half of the clean power from solar and batteries be used onsite by the resource-strapped campuses.

The other half would help lower the electricity bills of the often low- to moderate-income or minority communities surrounding the campuses, either by making the electricity available for purchase at a discount or through bill rebates, they said. This is meant to help families who face trade-offs between paying the electric bill and spending on necessities such as food, medicine or gas, Brown said.

“What are the things they can do now with the delta they now have in their bank accounts?” Brown said. “The ability to transform communities, by putting families in a net positive cash flow position as a result of reducing the consumption of their homes or producing energy on their homes, is remarkable. It’s a groundbreaking endeavor.”