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Project will extend the benefits of solar power to Fruit Belt residents

A plan by National Grid to install solar energy systems on the rooftops of 100 homes in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt should help share across a broader economic spectrum the benefits derived from the area’s deep foray into renewable energy.

The project’s goal is a noble one and fits into the recent White House announcement of new measures to extend solar to a broader group of Americans, including low-income communities and individuals who rent.

Locally, the effort is being launched to test whether such neighborhood solar projects in lower-income areas make economic sense that can be duplicated elsewhere.

As News business reporter David Robinson outlined, the $3.7 million proposal involves the utility installing solar panels on the roofs of 100 Fruit Belt homes, and then selling the power in the state’s electricity market. The proceeds would reduce the electric bills of the residents of those hundred homes, plus an additional 50 households that applied for the program but did not get in because their homes were deemed unsuitable for rooftop solar panels.

The utility estimates that the program will cost $2.4 million after taking into account state and federal subsidies on rooftop solar systems. It will reportedly reduce the total electric bills of the 150 participating households by 20 percent to 25 percent.

Falling prices for solar power have provided opportunities for both entrepreneurs and electricity customers. But those opportunities have created some marketplace instability for utilities because they are no longer sure what the future will hold for electricity production.

The growth of solar is doubly important in Buffalo. Besides consumers lowering their electric bills, the giant SolarCity solar panel factory going up at RiverBend will help meet the demand for clean energy.

Solar is cheaper now and, considering possible regulation of fossil fuel power plants to combat climate change, should continue to grow. So the question is, what will the market look like in a few years? Utilities are being smart to get into the solar game. It is both economically and socially advantageous to start with pilot programs in low-income neighborhoods, which might otherwise be shut out of solar.