SAHF Members' Rooftop Solar Installations Provide Valuable Data on Going Solar in Affordable Housing

May 13, 2024

Solar panels at North Commons Village Hill property

Solar panels on The Community Builder's (TCB) property, North Commons at Village Hill. 

Last month, the EPA announced the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF) Solar for All awardees, presenting the industry with an unprecedented opportunity to create greater access to renewable energy, particularly rooftop solar for affordable housing. 

SAHF members are well acquainted with rooftop solar, having completed over 100 solar projects over the past 15 years. Their efforts are helping give residents access to high-quality, clean-energy homes. 

In turn, our members' rooftop solar installations give us valuable data and lessons that can help Solar for All awardees and the broader industry better serve the sector.

We reviewed our members' rooftop solar projects to identify the impact, challenges, and solutions that can guide the solar and affordable housing industries as new policies and programs come online.

This piece is the first in a blog series that explores SAHF members' rooftop solar projects, from installation to results, and the key takeaways we can all learn from as we work to secure a greener future for our planet. Future posts will address measuring impact and offer detailed insights on program design that support scaled uptake, successful installation, monitoring and benefits to residents. 

SAHF member rooftop solar portfolio is making an impact.

The SAHF member portfolio provides a unique opportunity to review the effects of previous and current rooftop solar programs and projects installed on affordable housing to use as guides for future efforts.

At the conclusion of the Big Reach, SAHF members implemented various renewable energy sources on 146 properties nationwide. Ninety-three of these were rooftop solar projects. 

Since then, SAHF members have continued to invest in rooftop solar, and total installations have risen to 138 rooftop solar projects. 

These solar projects serve more than 12,000 households across 16 states, with a capacity of over 6.4 MW. That's enough to cover 1,251 homes' energy use for one year. (Only 60% of rooftop solar project data collected from SAHF members included the system size, and this figure represents only collected information.)

SAHF member BRIDGE Housing completed one such project that saves residents, on average, $60 monthly on their electric bills. And a Dumfries, Va., installation by Community Housing Partners allows residents to save $11 monthly.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic and as building costs increase, our members are investing in solar at an increasing rate.

SAHF members accelerate solar installations despite challenges.

In reviewing our members' data, some clear solar installation trends emerge. 

First, rooftop solar is a strategy that our members continue to adopt across their portfolios, even with the disruption of the pandemic. Additionally, the rooftop system size continues to increase, meaning more energy generation and cost savings for these affordable housing properties and their residents. 

Lastly, there are several key areas where rooftop solar installation mimics the broader SAHF portfolio, demonstrating that properties seemingly access rooftop solar programs, regardless of property type. 

From the early 2000s through 2020, our members steadily increased the number of rooftop solar installations. However, even with the challenges of the pandemic, SAHF members have continued to install new rooftop solar panels, adding 45 systems since the beginning of 2020. 

The number of rooftop solar system installs per year has also dramatically increased. This chart shows the trend in solar PV installation at these properties over time. 

Chart of SAHF member rooftop solar projects from 2000-2023

As solar energy has become more attainable, with advancing technology and decreasing prices, more and more building owners have chosen to transition their properties toward renewable energy sources. 

Consistent with national trends, solar installation on SAHF properties increased exponentially. Members have shifted from, on average, annually installing one rooftop solar project in the early 2000s to annually installing ten rooftop solar projects in the 2020s.

As our members increased their rooftop solar installations, they've also grown the overall size of the systems they install. Doing so provides more clean energy to SAHF member properties. 

Before 2016, system sizes averaged slightly below 50 kW, which requires approximately 4,000 square feet of roof space. Since 2016, the average system size has been closer to 100kW, nearly doubling the size of an average rooftop solar installation and the amount of clean energy the property has access to. These trends mirror the broader residential sector, where system sizes have risen steadily due to lower installation costs increased equipment efficiencies, and improvements in program design that support broader systems.

However, it's not all good news. 

While SAHF members are adding more and larger rooftop solar installations, where they're making these installs is limited.

Rooftop solar installs are scattered nationwide.

SAHF member rooftop solar projects are mostly concentrated in California, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts. SAHF member properties in California, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia represent approximately 25% of SAHF's overall portfolio but makeup 80% of properties with rooftop solar. 

As you can see below, the expansion of rooftop solar is scattered nationwide. 

Geography of sahf member solar projects

Perhaps unsurprisingly, rooftop solar installations are occurring where there are well-established solar incentive programs specifically designed to support the multifamily affordable housing sector. California's Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) is one such program.

Our members indicated that accessing these programs is vital to support wide-scale adoption. In addition, HUD issued guidance for the SOMAH program, providing additional guarantees that allow multifamily owners and residents alike to benefit from the clean energy generated from program participation equitably. 

In other geographies, SAHF members said that one-time grants or locally driven pilot projects are key funding structures for solar installations, but full-scale deployment remains out of reach.

Progress, but some challenges remain

SAHF members have completed over 100 rooftop solar projects over the past 15 years, generating 6.4 MW of power for more than 12,000 households across 16 states.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic and as building costs have increased, our members continue to install rooftop solar on their properties. 

However, most of these projects are occurring in one state: California. More grants and local projects are needed in more states to support SAHF members and the broader affordable housing sector investing in rooftop solar on more of their properties.

Yet we're facing another challenge regarding rooftop solar: Measuring impact. 

That's because accessing data on rooftop solar installations across the industry can be challenging. We address that in our next post in this series.

SAHF would like to recognize and thank former Energy & Sustainability intern Jessica Parmenter for providing the data analysis cited in this blog post.